Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Would You Care if a White Man Cured Covid-19?

That's the title of an article by Heather MacDonald published in the Wall St Journal on April 17, 2020, which someone sent me and I just got round to reading. It's more topical now, two months later, thanks to Black Lives Matters protests. The sub-headline precises the argument: Hiring researchers by sex and race rather than scientific prowess is dangerous nonsense.

'Scientists at Oxford University and King’s College London are racing to develop an inexpensive ventilator that can be quickly built with off-the-shelf components. Should it matter that all the lead researchers on the project are men? If you believe university diversity bureaucrats and many academic deans, the initiative will be handicapped by the absence of women among the project heads. If there is a silver lining to the Covid-19 pandemic, it may be to expose as dangerous nonsense the practice of hiring researchers by sex and race rather than scientific accomplishments.

'Mandatory diversity statements are now ubiquitous in hiring for science, technology, engineering and mathematics jobs. An Alzheimer’s researcher seeking a position in a neurology lab must document his contributions to “diversity, equity and inclusion.” At the University of California, Berkeley, the life sciences department rejected 76% of the applications it received last year because they lacked sufficiently effusive diversity, equity and inclusion statements. The hiring committee didn’t even look at the failed applicants’ research records.

'Were the remaining contenders the best scientists in their field? Apparently it doesn’t matter. What matters is how good they are at discussing “distinctions and connections between diversity, equity, and inclusion” during their job talks, in the words of UC’s diversity guidance. The rejected applicants showed insufficient knowledge of the “dimensions of diversity that result from different identities, especially URMs”—underrepresented minorities. Perhaps some were so rash as to suggest that racial and sex quotas in STEM hiring are antithetical to the university’s research mission.
'Science education is being watered down in the hope of graduating more women, blacks and Hispanics. Do we want the best molecular biologists and pharmacologists working on a cure for Covid-19? Or do we want the best female, black and Hispanic molecular biologists and pharmacologists working on it? Sometimes the same person will occupy both categories. But when that isn’t the case, it is reckless to treat sex and race as superior qualifications. Given existing disparities in math and science skills, proportionality in STEM can be widely achieved only by lowering standards.'

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