Is “Diversity” In Science Necessary? Legal?

The National Institutes of Health is worried that it, or somebody, is discriminating against blacks. According to a long article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, NIH “shocked itself in 2011 with a study that found a wide race-based variance in its grant awards,” and it is still struggling to explain that variance.

That 2011 study, by University of Kansas economist Donna Ginther, found that from 2000 through 2006 the agency approved 29% of the applications from “white scientists” (were Asians white for this study?) but only 16% from black scientists, who accounted for only 1.4% of all applicants. The study reached no conclusion “about whether the wide racial discrepancies were due to bias in the NIH system, lower ability among black applicants, or a combination of those factors.”

Appalled by these results and what NIH director Francis S. Collins described as “[t]he well-described and insidious possibility of unconscious bias,” NIH ordered “bias-awareness training” for it “top leaders” and promised to conduct thorough research on its methods of awarding research grants, research that has “proven to be difficult” because of “legal and scientific challenges.”

Nevertheless, according to the Chronicle, “the NIH is now moving ahead with a strategy aimed more at strengthening the nation’s cohort of minority scientists than at rooting out any internal biases against them.” It created a new position of chief NIH officer “scientific-work-force diversity,” whose director, Roderic I. Pettigrew, rather predictably proclaimed that “we aren’t where we want to be” regarding minority scientists.

NIH also created new grants to mentor minority students at institutions receiving less than $7.5 million a year in NIH grants and with at least 25% of their undergraduates receiving Pell grants. That is in addition to “dozens of programs to help minority students at major universities” already in place, “including a $60-million a year program of grant supplements designated for minority researchers.”

All this race-based activity by a government agency raises two fundamental questions not addressed in the Chronicle article: Why is it necessary, and Why is it legal?

It is certainly necessary for the NIH not to discriminate against minorities, but why is it necessary to discriminate in favor of them? The only justification for race-based preferential treatment that has survived Supreme Court review is “diversity,” i.e., that whites, Asians, and others must be exposed to the “difference” embodied by blacks and Hispanics in  order to get a good education. But how, as I have asked here and here, will having a few more black mathematicians or engineers “enrich research and scholarship”? To whom will they provide exactly what “diversity”? Despite the NIH having a new officer in charge of “scientific-work-force diversity,” these programs, like so many “diversity” efforts, have nothing at all to do with diversity and everything to do with simply targeting blacks for preferential treatment to get their numbers up.

And even if having more black (or Hispanic or Asian or Hmong?) scientists is desirable, how can targeting aid on the basis of race without even the camouflage of “diversity” be legal? Justice Powell’s opinion for the Court in Bakke held that “Preferring members of any one group for no reason other than race or ethnic origin is discrimination for its own sake. This the Constitution forbids.” Justice O’Connor endorsed and echoed that view in her Grutter majority opinion (“That would amount to outright racial balancing, which is patently unconstitutional”), also quoting Justice Kennedy’s similar assertion in his opinion for the Court in Freeman v. Pitts (“Racial balance is not to be achieved for its own sake”). And twenty years ago the Fourth Circuit held that the University of Maryland cannot offer racially restrictive scholarships. (Podberesky v. Kirwan, 38 F.3d 147 (4th Cir. 1994), cert. denied, 115 S. Ct. 2001 (1995))

Perhaps at some point the NIH will explain what “reason other than race or ethnic origin” it has for devoting strenuous efforts and millions of dollars into producing more black scientists. Even less likely, perhaps at some point someone in or out of Congress will ask.

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

12 thoughts on “Is “Diversity” In Science Necessary? Legal?

  1. Surely, anonymity in the application process is sufficient. If Forbes is correct that this already exists (which would not be surprising), then this whole idea is an obvious boondoggle and those proposing it should be fired at least, if not arrested for defrauding the government.

  2. The diversity racket and the dictionary are the only places where you expect ‘success’ to come before ‘work’

  3. Sure, these programs are racist. They are based on an unspoken assumption that Blacks or Hispanics are second rate citizen when it comes highly intellectual jobs, so they have to be treated differently. Now when the “bad” racism says they have to be prosecuted or made into slaves, the “good” racism says they have to be pampered.
    But still, they have to be treated not as equals, but as children, savages or perhaps mentally deficient, only in a nicest possible way.
    Perhaps, the only positive outcome I could see is that if racist stereotype is actually correct (hat a horrible thought!)
    So, lets say what that unspoken horror is. Blacks and/or Hispanics are truly children and savages to be brought to civilised habits of white men by some sort of very special treatment. They should be thankful that the treatment currently is rather sweet. And the whites should not bemoan the lost money and job opportunities, but be proud of their continuous superiority.

  4. I’ve located and read the study by Ginther, et al., published at sciencemag.org. They did perform tests of statistical significance (as would be expected–and I shouldn’t have doubted. Mea culpa.). But inconclusive results is a questionable basis for $500 million in program funding.
    The study buries some of the most important assumptions and findings, such as:
    1) “Although applicants self-identify race, ethnicity, and gender, this information does not appear in the application and is not available to the review committee, staff, or council.”
    How, pray tell, does unconscious racial bias make an appearance in the absence of information identifying such to the reviewers? This is pure fantasy, as a starting point.
    And 2) “To receive NIH funding, applications are evaluated by a peer-review process that considers the significance, innovation, and approach of the grant application, the investigator(s), and the research environment. Applications determined to be meritorious are discussed in detail and scored. About half of all applications are scored. Among those that were scored, relative merit score, budgets and NIH institute priorities, which vary by year and institute, determine which applications are funded.”
    Yet, of the criteria in this NIH peer-review and grant process, only the investigator, and the research environment are analyzed in the Ginther, et al., study. In other words, qualitative factors such as the significance, innovation, and approach of the grant application as evaluated by the peer-reviewers, and budgets and NIH institute priorities, which vary by year and institute, are not taken into account. That leaves a large explanatory hole regarding the awarding of NIH grants.
    In social science research, only those factors that can be quantified can be analyzed. Evaluation of the scientific worthiness of the grant application is assumed by proxy–proxy principally being race and ethnicity (after controlling for what can be controlled).
    The study presents as a foregone conclusion that any differences in sub-group outcomes must be evidence of bias, if only because of an inability to quantify the complexities of the grant process and outcomes.
    There is one obvious give-away in the final sentence of the study abstract: “Our results suggest some leverage points for policy intervention.”
    Sounds like an agenda.

  5. It would appear that public policy by proxy, i.e. media reporting of group mean (statistical) differences, engenders an irrational response. In this instance, new programs (awareness training, mentoring grants) and new personnel (chief officer for scientific workforce diversity) by the NIH are implemented despite no understanding of the evidence, i.e. the study authors apparently drew no conclusions.
    Anyone with a cursory knowledge of statistics knows small populations (applications from black scientists representing 1.4% of total applications) are very likely to show a divergence (16% vs 29% acceptance rate) as compared to a large population (applications from white scientists) without such divergence demonstrating statistical significance. In other words, a distinction without a difference–a logical fallacy.
    At a minimum, tests of statistical significance should be made before implementing any actions as a result of a study that presented no conclusions. The Chronicle article is suggestive of nothing more than: “When did you stop beating your wife?”
    As a simple matter of fairness and non-discrimination–and to avoid allegations of unconscious bias–why are scientific grant applications collated by race? Why doesn’t the NIH apply the symphony orchestra method, where the applicant performs behind a curtain, and therefore those in position to approve or deny are immune to (unconscious) bias or influence based on visual characteristics of the applicant? Strictly merit.

  6. The admittedly smaller NSF has been doing this for years under their “broader impacts” review criterion.
    After having sat on dozens of panels, in a variety of interdisciplinary programs, it is clear that race- & gender- based decision making is encouraged.
    When questions are raised about the legitimacy of this effort are raised, they are immediately hushed. It’s a matter of public policy from the top.

  7. I worked for 10 years in semiconductor factories (Fabs, for fabrication) wearing cleanroom garb that covered me from toe to top of head, with only my safety-glasses-covered eyes showing.
    If you worked at it, you could distinguish male from female, sometimes, among all the other Oompa-Loompa garbed workers in the factory, but other than weight, height and outline, there was zero concern with diversity inside the cleanroom, because one could not tell anyone apart from anyone else except by name tag until you started recognizing their lumpy, completely covered shapes. Burqas are only slightly less revealing, really.
    I went 5 years without knowing what many of the factory workers looked like under their garb.
    Diversity? We concentrated on merit, the ability to do one’s job, and nothing else. There was no other way to function! It worked.

  8. I’m a physicist, of Irish-English ancestry, but that didn’t stop the US gummint from classifying me Hispanic because of my birth in Paraguay.
    Since I found out in 1980 that I’m Hispanic, I’ve received scholarships, and now I guess I can look forward to grant awards.
    What a country!

  9. I’m a physicist, of Irish-English ancestry, but that didn’t stop the US gummint from classifying me Hispanic because of my birth in Paraguay.
    Since I found out in 1980that I’m Hispanic, I’ve received scholarships, and now I guess I can look forward to grant awards.
    What a country!

  10. The NIH is taking these actions because the leaders are loyal Party members. the highest goal is to produce benefits for favored groups–women and sacred minorities [Blacks, Hispanics]. NIH leaders care nothing for actual scientific results, they are motivated by the Leninist rule “Kto, kogo”–“Who, whom.” NIH is functioning correctly in accordance with Party doctrines.

  11. I always believed that “science” was to be based on data???
    Guess not…this must be “progressive” science. Science based on racial quotas.
    This is not only silly…it is potentially a dangerous idea. The German fascists kept “Jewish science” out of their mainstream. And of course “ungerman” ideas.
    Maybe this was what Cuomo was talking about when he ordered conservatives out of New York State.

  12. I find it very interesting that this is occurring in the field of science. Is the race of the applicant even known to the reviewers? If it is, why? I’m guessing the reviewers don’t even know the race of the applicant to begin with. If that is true, how is it remotely possible that racism is occurring unless race is being inferred by the name of the applicant???

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