A letter in Nature accuses elite scientific institutions of “systemic racism”

July 31, 2020 • 11:30 am

Like many scientific journals and societies, the journal Nature is getting woker, larding its pages with letters and articles that often indict science or STEM for “systemic racism”. One letter, which appeared in Nature three days ago, is of that ilk.

While it would be foolish to deny that there are bigots and racists working in science, as there are in all areas, it’s a different matter to indict the discipline itself (including my own field of evolutionary biology) for “systemic racism,” at least in present days. That implies, depending on whose definition of the term “systemic racism” you use, that the field either has formal or informal structures in place to impede the advancement of ethnic minorities. This used to be the case, of course, and, as we know, science (i.e., “received scientific wisdom”) once gave its imprimatur to unsubstantiated and racist areas like eugenics, racial hierarchies, and so on. Even Darwin, an abolitionist, made statements about non-white groups that would be rejected as racist today.

But things have changed in a big way as society has advanced morally, and now science departments and fields are desperately seeking to redress the balance by looking for graduate students and faculty from minority groups. There are scholarships and grants directed at those groups, and I can truthfully say that in my entire career in science, I’ve encountered only one individual with attitudes I’d consider racist (that person will remain unnamed). Yes, there’s a dearth of minorities in science compared to the general population, but I strongly doubt that you can ascribe that to racism at the level of colleges, graduate schools, or faculty. Part of that may be a matter of preferences, but I suspect the main issue is that the pipeline to science is, for minorities, constricted beginning at the elementary-school level. We simply don’t have many minority applicants for graduate-school or faculty positions, and those we have are usually “Hispanic,” a broad term that can even include privileged individuals from Spain who are “white” by any account.  If there’s any discipline that is trying hard to achieve equity, it’s science.

Thus I bridle when I hear science in general accused of “systemic racism”, either built into science or as a general attitude within science. Yes, there’s individual racism, and that can manifest itself as biased treatment, but letters like the one below seem a bit extreme (you can see the letter in situ by clicking on the screenshot):

As I said, hiring and acceptance policies are already in place, as are scholarships and special grants and initiatives to promote ethnic diversity (see here and here for examples). But that is not enough for Gore-Felton et al.  They want not just equal opportunity, nor even equal outcome, but requiring “compulsory courses on the Black disapora” for every department in every elite institution of learning. This is a form of compulsory indoctrination. Further, the authors argue that no longer should advancement and tenure be based on merit (which of course always includes departmental and university service), but must be based on “excellence in diversity efforts.” This implies that if you’re not engaged in such efforts, you’re not going to get promotion and tenure.

This goes too far, and is a form of authoritarianism to which I objected this morning. Forced courses on the Black diaspora—and we know what these will be like—as well as denial of promotion or tenure if you don’t achieve excellence in fostering diversity (they of course mean racial diversity rather than any other kind of diversity) are ways of employing science for social engineering. Now scientists should participate ensuring that all groups, be they based on ethnicity or sex, have equal opportunity for entry and are treated like everyone else in graduate school and as faculty, but this is not what these initiatives are doing. They are insisting that scientists engage in political activities that have nothing to do with science, and then get marinated in ideologies that have nothing to do with science.

The piece above is a letter, not an official statement by Nature, but believe me, official statements resembling the one above are not only already in place in some science departments, but more are on the way. And it’s a sign of the times that Nature took these bizarre suggestions seriously enough to publish them.

36 thoughts on “A letter in Nature accuses elite scientific institutions of “systemic racism”

  1. Would this apply to institutions worldwide?

    Or is this another example of the US-centrism that is part of so much of this rhetoric.

  2. This short bio/article just came out in Science, below. Since the topic of diversity and specifically evolutionary biology came up, I am compelled to share it. It credits a scientist with a good track record of diversity… is how I took it… well – I don’t know – judge for yourself :


    “… Losos launch the careers of 59 graduate students and postdocs. They include at least eight Black, Latino, and Native American scholars, in a field that lacks diversity. (Although 3% of U.S. biologists are African American or Black, for example, only 0.3% of evolutionary biologists are.)“

  3. It isn’t about science but about the whole socioeconomic ladder.
    Efforts to address inequities at the top (hiring, promotion) are pretty well maxed out.

    There have been benefits in that approach, but tbest way to zero out inequities is to work at the bottom of the ladder (equal funding to schools, health care for all, reform of sentencing for minor crimes, de-criminalization of drugs, police reform).

    1. Indeed; I encountered many “people of colour” calling out my privilege of having been able to study more or less what I wanted as an undergraduate (BA philosophy is not exactly “practical”). I said I realized I was lucky, but rather than end that I would rather that everyone else receiv the same.

      (I worked out that the way I would put it is: move some of the BSc programs to engineering or other technology, then all BA and BSc students who are admitted would get full ride – but the standards would be current B- or so, not C as the “cut off”.)

  4. OK, I’m going to say something that may get me into trouble. Why would any ethnic minority student want to go into a scientific field so capricious, and lacking in job guarantees, as evolutionary biology, when those same credentials would get them into medical school?

    Obviously if any student, of any ethnicity, has the same sort of crazy passion for the obscure that Jerry and I possessed, then we should encourage them, and make available for them every opportunity.

    But I’ve spent a lot of my career discouraging white students from pursuing this academic career path (unless they were obviously pathologically intent in doing so). I really don’t think that my job should have been encouraging people of disadvantaged economic status (as is true for many ethnic minority students) to forgo a financially secure career path (such as medicine) in order to enter the extremely insecure one of academic science.

    1. @Christine. Yes exactly. These kinds of calls for action take no account of cultural or class differences among people who might be more or less inclined to take a big chance on an unpredictable career path.

    2. There are those who are ‘pathologically intent’ on a career in academia, but there are plenty who sort of stumble into it, unforeseen. I’ve seen plenty of both, and both can become quite happy in their work. But both types of people have to be smart workaholics.
      Actually, I think a career in academia winds up being easier and very satisfying, intellectually. There is the pretty tense and scary early bit where you need to get tenure (and some make that look easy, damn, them), but after that, you have quite a lot of leeway about what you do at work.
      Meanwhile, a medical doctors’ work is never done.

      1. @ Mark Sturtevant “Actually, I think a career in academia winds up being easier and very satisfying, intellectually. ”

        I’m very happy that I became an academic. Of course, when I did it, it was a different world, and I’m not sure I’d do it again now. Now it’s all about grant money, not about anything remotely intellectual, and not a lot of leeway there.

        Something that did impress me, though, back when I was an assistant professor, back in the 1980s. I had some housemates who were resident doctors. Their starting salary, when they finished residency, was more than I could hope to make as a full professor (at a good private university). OK, so I didn’t have to pay liability insurance (but maybe I should have!).

        Just sayin’. Good thing that I was a middle class white girl with relatively rich parents. Wouldn’t want to recommend that career choice to the minority students who I helped up their grades in my class to get into medical school. Not that they had any notion other than that I was nuts to be doing what I did.

        1. It often takes new doctors many years to pay off their debt for education. And, more and more, medical offices and hospitals are being run by business entities that control the amount of money the individual doctors can earn.

          1. It still beats the typical academic career, at least financially. I was 40 before I made enough money to qualify for a mortgage, and I won’t pay it off before I have to retire. All of the MDs I know have done much much better. And as Christine notes, it is a kind of malpractice for an academic my age to encourage a young person from a working-class background to go into academics. Such a young person lacks the familial safety net that made academics doable for me and Christine and others of a certain age. Well-to-do people still go into academics today, but they are the only ones I would encourage to do so. It’s still true that some who really love the life of the mind will still pursue that career in spite of the delayed and uncertain financial rewards, but that doesn’t mean we should be actively encouraging people to follow that path if they lack a plan B and a family who can help them if the wheels fall off. Sorry for the mixed metaphors.

  5. A well-regarded basic science department at the University of Wash. School of Medicine has sponsored two zoom “symposia” on the burning issue of pronouns. [In case anyone hasn’t noticed, the pronoun issue, hinging on the notion that the X and Y chromosomes are in essence social constructs, has piggybacked on top of other social justice tropes.] Just recently, the department announced still another zoom symposium, this time on—wait for it—intersectionality!

    The department’s name includes the word Science, but one has to wonder how much time these busy events leave for science. But perhaps I overlook the new doctrine that science is a mere “aspect and assumption of whiteness”, to be deconstructed (or is that disrupted?) in the struggle for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

    1. I’d like to put in my signature that my “pronouns” are “I, me, mine”. I probably won’t, but what the hell, I’m retired.

  6. Jerry, this is already happening in Canada. The Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council (the equivalent of the US National Science Foundation) requires grant proposals to include a plan for how the grant recipient will increase diversity and inclusivity among trainees (especially graduate students & postdocs). Having a track record of training women and members of underrepresented groups is not sufficient. Not including such a plan in the proposal can be grounds for not funding the proposed research. Not getting such a grant will prevent junior faculty members from getting tenure.

    The details are relevant. Guidelines for grant proposals come up just short of endorsing affirmative action in recruitment of trainees. No guidance is given for how to identify recruits who might be members of underrepresented groups like the LGBTQ community. And the goals are not clear: it is not specified what comparison should be made to define an increase in representation: increased relative to Canada overall, or relative to the local community of each university, or relative to a global sample? Women are over-represented among trainees in many departments (including mine); gay students are also probably over-represented; there are fewer Black people in Canada compared to the US, and I would guess that Blacks are underrepresented in science departments, but people of color more broadly construed are overrepresented.

    And of course no consideration is given to the possibility that people who are members of different groups might have cultural or class differences that could lead to different career choices.

  7. The compulsory courses are a telling detail — the same idea was floated in the UCL survey on eugenics that Jerry wrote about here a while back (in that case, that *all* UCL students, studying whatever subject, should also be required to take a course telling them how awful UCL’s involvement with eugenics was). The monomania and untroubled enthusiasm for coercion speak volumes about the kind of people we’re dealing with. “Because I think this is important, everyone else must be forced to acknowledge its importance too.”

    1. “What? You don’t think it’s important? You must be…” What they really want is another round of callouts, this time for undergrads.
      We’re going to end up with a lot of tragically unemployable people, while at the same time no one questions at-will employment (because getting people fired is so satisfying) or why Jimmy John’s is requiring its low-paid workers to sign non-competitive agreements that last 2 years.

      1. Look at a list of doctors'(and other scientific or technical organizations and occupations) anywhere in the U.S. and you are likely to see a relatively high percentage of Middle Eastern, Indian, oriental, some African names. I don’t know if that is due to the programs we’re talking about here, greater interest by “non-whites) in these areas or increased immigration to fill underfilled niches.

  8. South Africa (my beloved country) has had to confront the issue of setting right the wrongful actions of our apartheid past. Affirmative action has been the right thing to do and has brought about some meaningful success. Unfortunately, there have been unwanted or unintended consequences. One, a sudden loss of institutional memory in state departments and enterprises (utilities); another, a massive exodus of young graduates unable to secure employment in their country of birth due to quotas. How do we address racism at university level? Surely not by making critical race theory and related courses a compulsory component of a degree course? Possibly a course in ethics and governace may be a more measured option?

  9. I am completely okay with colleges and universities folding in a course or two on ‘black diaspora’ as part of their general education requirements, as long as it’s a substitution for some other current general requirement so as to not make college longer or reduce the amount of major classes a student can take.

    Sure, it’s a bit heavy-handed compared to more open general ed requirements like “you must take 9 credits of social sciences,” but given social justice and race is going to be the big social topic of the decade, it seems reasonable to say kids should learn about it. I remember having to read the Handmaid’s Tale the spring before college, because all freshman planning to go to the school were going to have to read it (ironically, I didn’t even end up going there…but I read it) for a required freshman seminar. I grumped about it at the time, but really, it didn’t hurt me to expand my horizons and read something topical that I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen on my own. And it won’t hurt our proto-scientists and engineers to have to read and think about race issues and BLM type stuff today. So long as it doesn’t add on to their already large course loads.

    1. So you’re in favor of courses that are basically propaganda, in which no dissenting ideas are tolerated? “Thinking about BLM” in such a course will not, of course, allow you to criticize BLM. It is there to propagandize the principles of BLM and Critical Race Theory. And yes, it will hurt proto-scientists who are forced to swallow ideology and not allowed to dissent. That’s inimical to a scientific mindset.

      How about a course on how odious the Republican Party is. That won’t hurt our proto-scientists either given that the GOP’s perfidies are surely one of the biggest problems we face?

      1. This is related to my point:

        “Ok, you want to add some content to the syllabus. Fair enough. Be specific! Tell us how it fits together.”

        The CEGEPs in Quebec now do cross-course requirements for certain things, which might work elsewhere.

        So rather than a course on “racial justice” one could take several courses that deal with different aspects of the problems to be addressed. This way you get more diversity of views (!).

  10. And what is the evidence that this will work? 15 years of diversity trainings in the workplace (and many of which I took were excellent) has not shown any strong correlation with results in the workplace.

    1. There was an episode on that on NPR recently. This was about how various companies have hired special employees whose job it was to increase diversity, and to run training symposia on diversity sensitivity. The result of all this, as I recall, was that these efforts have very little effect on diversity

  11. There’s a trend toward having academia spend more time & money on community involvement, so devoting part of the tenure track to something that improves the pipeline would be a good anti-racist move (anti-racist in the current meaning of something that disrupts a system that has a disproportionate ill effect on some groups or a disproportionate advantage on some).

    Public institutions probably have more pressure to “give back,” and since they have been receiving less and less financial help from states, you really can’t blame them for this trend. They have to be “good citizens” to survive.

    1. Did you not see that the thing that will get you tenure and promoted was FOSTERING (racial) diversity? They didn’t mention mentoring other kids, giving public lectures to big groups, or working in a soup kitchen. To get promoted, you have to give back in ONLY ONE WAY. Now if talking to black kids or lecturing in their schools or showing them your lab were one of many “give back” activities, that would be fine, but that’s not what these authors want, as is manifestly clear from their letter.

  12. Tenure tied to diversity scores sounds a lot like what was going on at Berkeley a while ago regarding hiring. They all seem to use the same template for these letters and agendas; none of them ever suggest new ideas. I don’t think it helps them to be so rigid about it.

  13. I’m sorry, but I find the idea presented by this group totally repulsive. To hire a group of people, have them cobble together one “unified” black history studies curriculum
    ensures that there will be no room for a variety of histories, experiences or opinions. You will end up with new generations of students inculcated with an inaccurate, inappropriate “knowledge” of the topic.

    I’d almost rather have a setting in which students were presented with subject matter expert selection of a list of diverse books, insist they be read, and then hold student discussion sessions after each one. I think they would learn more real and useful information in this way.

  14. As I general guiding principle anytime I see any text opening or leading with “As a [identity group]…” I move on.
    Nothing to see here.
    Its a neat trick – works at parties also!

    D.A., NYC

    1. Gary Shteyngart’s “Little Failure” is a very funny account of a Russian immigrant child’s growing up in the USA in the 1980s, and college in the 90s. There he noticed that student expressions in class were expected to begin with the routine but mysterious formula “Azuh”. For example: “Azuh young person”, “Azuh woman of color”, “Azuh platypus in a past life”, and so on.

  15. The way things are going over there is very sad – not least because it will be heading to the UK in the very near future, like most things eventually do.

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