Sci Am reports on a science fellowship cancelled because all the candidates were white men

October 31, 2021 • 12:15 pm

This article is from the newest Scientific American, which has become obsessed with “progressive” ideology.  The title tells the tale, and I offer the story to readers because I want their opinion. The upshot is that a prestigious fellowship given out by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) requires a panel to nominate a short slate of candidates for a pretty prestigious “AGU fellows program”. The slate then goes to a higher committee to choose the winner.

But this year all of the final few nominees were white males.  Because of this—not because the nominees weren’t highly qualified—they decided not to award the fellowship at all. The finalists weren’t diverse enough, and the reasons for the rejection appear to be twofold. First, because the all-white panel is said to be a result of racism—of “implicit bias”. Second, cancelling the award was said by some to send a stronger message to the AGU that they have to step up their diversity game than merely raising the issue loudly and often.

My own feeling is that the accusation of racism is not justified until they show that it is not a “pipeline” problem in the area of “cryosphere research”—that is, there might be relatively few women or minorities even available for selection. Inequity only reflects racism when there is a proportionality of minorities in the candidate pool that is significantly lower than in the outcome. But there’s one more thing: we need to know about the credentials of the candidates. It might be that there is no racism or sexism here if you vetted the c.v.s of the candidates blind to their sex or ethnicity, and the top candidates were still white males. These are mid-career awards, for one thing, and the pool of mid-career applicants might be lower for some groups because they’re just getting into the field, or because they aren’t as interested in the field.

In other words, those who cancelled the award have not shown to my satisfaction that there was any bias involved in the award at all. Now if they feel that sometimes diversity should trump quality, then they need to make that explicit. For only then can they justify what they’ve done in the absence of supporting data.

I’ll try to summarize briefly. Quotes from the article are indented.

The fellowship and the process:

The AGU fellows program, established nearly 60 years ago, recognizes members who have made exceptional contributions to their fields through scientific innovation, breakthroughs and discoveries. It’s a high honor. Fellows often serve as “external experts, capable of advising government agencies and other organizations outside the sciences upon request,” according to AGU.

The selection process this past spring was an arduous, careful operation from beginning to end.

Candidates, typically middle- or senior-level scientists, are first nominated by peers. The nominees are divided into groups with 20 or 30 names, and then organized by scientific disciplines within AGU — atmospheric sciences, ocean sciences, planetary sciences and so on.

Committees representing each section review the pool of nominees, select a few final candidates and send them on to an upper-tier committee. This last group, the “union committee,” makes the final selections.

The process proceeds the same way each year and concludes, ostensibly, with the same outcome: a new batch of AGU’s best and brightest scientists.

The outcome:

Five of the nation’s top ice scientists found themselves in a conundrum.

They’d been tasked with a formidable job: reviewing candidates for the American Geophysical Union’s fellows program, the most prestigious award given by the world’s largest earth and space science society. But when the group looked at its list of candidates, all nominated by peers, it spotted a problem.

Every nominee on the list was a white man.

“That was kind of a bit of a showstopper for me,” said Helen Fricker, a glaciologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and one of the five committee members.

. . .The homogeneous pool of nominees didn’t sit right.

Fricker had been named a fellow herself in 2017, when relatively few women were recognized.

“One of the reasons I was put on the committee was because I’d been quite vocal about the year that I’d been a fellow, I was very much in the minority, and we needed to do better and get more women,” she said in an interview.

So the committee members made an uncomfortable decision. They declined to recommend any nominees at all.

Fricker’s statement implies, but doesn’t say explicitly, that they are failing because there are not enough women that get the award. But how many women are in the applicant pool, and how do their credentials compare to that of other people? They give other statistics about a disproportionality of men, not just in the AGU fellowships but in Nobel Prizes and other science awards, all apparently reflecting bias. (Doudna and Charpentier are apparent exceptions.)

The one worrying issue here is that the article says that the number of nominations of women has dropped in the last five years, with 2021 as a low point. What does that mean? To Fricker and others, it apparently implies increasing sexism and racism.

The evidence for these accusations is below:

Suggestions of sexism and racism:

First, Fricker says that their bold action sends a needed signal to the AGU that couldn’t be sent just by lobbying:

“Everybody’s given us all this great advice on what we could have done. But honestly, I don’t think anything would have had the impact of what we ended up doing,” she told E&E News. “If you just go forward and put names forward and then say, ‘OK, we’ve put these names forward, but honestly guys this is a terrible pool and you need to do better next year,’ nothing would change.”

That seems a bit unfair, for it violates Kant’s view that people should never be used as means, and here the rejected people are used as means to send a message to the AGU. But to Fricker that’s okay:

“It was a very sad, sort of tough thing to have to do, because there’s people on that list who were truly, amazingly deserving,” Fricker said. “But the honest truth is that they will get nominated again and they will become fellows. There’s no question there. It will just be a fairer process.”

Pardon me if I don’t believe her.

Here’s where the implicit bias comes in—a construct that has been shown to be unworkable:

Despite persistent problems with diversity in science awards around the world, researchers say there are plenty of ways to tackle the problem.

Implicit bias plays a major role in who receives science awards, according to Mary Anne Holmes, a geologist and professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. It’s an unconscious bias or prejudice that can lead people to identify more strongly with people from their own social groups..

If awards nominators or selection committees are composed primarily of homogeneous groups — for instance, white people or men — that can lead to an unintentional skew in the people who are nominated or selected for awards.

. . .“We’re all committing acts of implicit bias every day, all the time, without meaning to be biased,” Holmes said in an interview.

Implicit bias training for awards selection committees “is huge,” she added.

Accusations of bias ring hollow without the necessary statistics: number of candidates and quality, ideally assessed without knowing sex or ethnicity. One solution is to go out, as one group did, and publicize to letter writers to write for qualified women or minorities. In one case noted, this upped the number of women getting fellowships in the earth and planetary sciences section.

Upshot:  It’s unfair to turn down all the final nominees because they were white males. Who knows if they’ll apply again, much less make the cut? If there is bias, implicit or explicit, they have to make a case for it, as well as a case for prioritizing diversity for the awards. I’ll cite here some data and one solution offered by a brave person:

Raymond Bradley, director of the climate system research center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, was among the first to publish a statement to AGU’s online member forum, AGU Connect. He called for the committee members to resign.

“What the committee should have done is what they were tasked to do, which is to select from the nominations they received the best people and put them forward,” Bradley said in an interview. “At the same time they could recognize that there aren’t enough nominations being received from women and underrepresented groups, and they could shake up their members and say, ‘Hey, come on, let’s nominate more people.’”

AGU data from the past few years suggests that there are significantly fewer female fellow nominees than male nominees. Of those nominees, a slightly greater percentage of women than men go on to be selected as fellows, Bradley pointed out.

“This hardly supports the idea that there is some sort of implicit bias in the selection process,” he said in a follow-up email. “The problem lies in the low number of nominations, and that depends on the effort people make to submit candidates for Fellow.”

That suggests that, as Bradley notes, proponents of more diversity should expend more effort at unearthing nominees, more “shaking up of the membership.”

Please weigh in below.

44 thoughts on “Sci Am reports on a science fellowship cancelled because all the candidates were white men

  1. I disagree slightly with this claim: “Inequity only reflects racism when there is a proportionality of minorities in the candidate pool that is significantly lower than in the outcome.”

    That strikes me as a Kendi-ian position, i.e., if the output proportions don’t reflect the input proportions, the explanation for this is racism (Kendi would say “the only explanation”). In fact, there are many possible explanations, not all of which are strictly mappable to racism.

    If we assume the biological species-level playing field is on average roughly equal, but we also assume culture and socioeconomic diversity, and we assume the latter is a variable of significance AND that explanations for the latter in their current form aren’t merely reducible to sweeping generalizations about “systemic racism,” then it will continue, indefinitely, to be the case that disproportionate outcomes are likely to continue, barring changes to mitigating cultural and socioeconomic factors. Again, assuming, I think fairly, that the “fix” shouldn’t be the erosion of standards of merit.

    Of course if competence levels are equal on the way in and you’re still consistently getting disproportionate ratios, then yes, the odds that discrimination is an explanatory factor go up.

    To your broader point, it is nakedly racist, in my view, to turn people away or disband awards or take whatever action, because of their race, sex, etc. Trying to force certain outcomes on the basis of race, sex, etc. is a kind of optical eugenics – an attempt to improve the optics on the basis of a definition of positive outcomes that depends on a paradoxically categorical (in this case, racialized and genderized) view of the world.

  2. “Guilty until proven innocent” is the operative criterion here for the judges. Guilty means that all the judges agree with the CRT principle that all whites and white society are racist a priori, no proof needed. Is this not neo Stalinism? it certainly isn’t how our legal system operates, thankfully. Imagine if all those accused of racism had to face a JURY and possible imprisonment unless he/she could prove his/her innocence. How would you feel, folks? Those who think Qanon and white supremacists are our greatest threat are inhaling something; it is the loose-cannon left, which has near-total control over not only our media but our universities. It is hard to disagree with Bret Weinstein’s opinion that our republic is on the verge of collapse. Evidence to the contrary is rare.

    1. Very well-stated indeed! The name of Peter Boghossian ( who regards wokeism as a powerful “mind virus”) can be added, as well as that of Gad Saad, the Canadian professor whose book entitled The Parasitic Mind: How Infectious Ideas Are Killing Common Sense is well worth reading. One should never lose sight of who is currently in almost complete control of the means of academic, cultural, and journalistic production.

    2. it certainly isn’t how our legal system operates, thankfully.

      For the first century and a half after ratification of the United States constitution, non-whites were excluded from service on criminal juries — until SCOTUS’s landmark decision in Norris v. Alabama (1935) (the case involving the infamous railroading of the Scotsboro Boys).

      For decades after the Norris decision, during the Jim Crow era in the South, black citizens continued to be systematically eliminated from juries.

      For those of us old enough to remember the 1960s and 1970s the commonplace phrases appearing in the news “acquitted by an all-white jury” (regarding white defendants charged with crimes against blacks) and “convicted by an all-white jury” (for black defendants charged with any crime) continue to carry a particular resonance.

      1. It used to resonate with me. But now I’m not so sure, as with so many things.
        A jury of one’s social peers would often be all or mostly white or Asian if the defendant was white. Otherwise it might be a “Hang Whitey” exercise, as some native prospective jurors told media they had come to do at a murder trial in Saskatchewan a few years ago. None were selected. (Compliance with summonses to jury duty is normally very low among indigenous people.) Yet if the defendant was black or aboriginal and the victim white, we would be queasy about an all-black or an all-aboriginal jury returning a verdict of not guilty as a show of solidarity. At least I would be. (In fact, those “unsympathetic” defendants often elect trial by judge alone because they know that few of their “community” will show up for the selection pool in any event.)
        The Crown has lately been appealing jury verdicts of not guilty in the uncommon cases where settler people are accused of killing natives. In one recent case it got a conviction of manslaughter on the second go but is now appealing the sentence as too lenient.

        I suppose it depends on how much “us and them” there is. In courts-martial, an enlisted defendant is judged by a panel of officers, not by his peer enlistees, for obvious reasons related to good order and discipline. And the Nuremberg defendants were judged by the victors, not by their fellow citizens of defeated Germany. Ditto Japanese officials charged with war crimes. In a polarized society, jury make-up may be harder to do fairly and the verdicts harder to defend against critics who don’t like the outcome. Native people often style themselves as not Canadian (even though they are Canadian citizens), and refer to Canada as a foreign country whose laws and sovereignty they don’t recognize. If sincere and not just politicking, this is the ultimate polarization short of civil war.

        If it’s hard for criminal juries to get it right after hearing all the evidence, arguments, and a lengthy and detailed charge by the judge, it must be even harder for awards panels.

    3. I don’t think that the loose-cannon left are a greater threat than Q’anon and other elements of the far right; this despite their increasing hold in academia and some of mainstream media. Which side tried to violently overthrow a national election? Which side has lots of guns?

      1. John McWhorter would disagree in that it’s the Left that has taken over institutions in government, education (elementary, high school, and post secondary) and even the areas of art. While there are more of these right leaning totalitarians, he feels they haven’t actually succeeded in doing what the Left has.

      2. “tried to”. Without a hope of success.
        The far left have succeeded in completely taking over academia and their radical ideas have shifted the Overton Window far to the left.

  3. How can anyone deny the pervasive and pernicious influence on the entire culture as well as the body politic wrought by the acolytes in the cult of “wokeness” when numerous organizations in the hard sciences, as well as both Scientific American (not to mention Nature in the UK) and the JAMA (not to mention The Lancet in the UK), have shown abundant evidence of this disturbing and completely anti-rational trend?

  4. People used to mock the educational methods in UK schools as ‘Everyone shall win prizes’ in an earlier bout of political correctness, on the basis of rewarding ‘everyone’ is no preparation for life after school.

    I guess this round of political correctness is ‘If everyone can’t have prizes, no-one shall have prizes’.

  5. To focus on the possibility of implicit bias in this case ignores the elephant in the room. While it’s certainly possible that implicit bias played a role in producing an all-white-male shortlist, the decision not to make an award at all is *explicitly* biased. Fellowships were denied to every individual on the shortlist purely on the basis of their membership of a certain ethnic/gender group.

    1. I remember an organization years ago that simply disbanded itself rather than give an award of some kind to the black person who had won it fair and square.

    2. One wonders what the reaction would have been if applied to another non white but all black/ coloured ethnic gender group?

  6. So much for the privilege of white males – I can’t imagine another group of candidates that would result in this outcome.

    1. Of course, any one of these white gentlemen need only self-identify as transgender (automatically valid so no physical transition needed) and now they tick off two boxes: Woman and LGBTQ+.

      1. And if you can self identify your sex, why should race be any different? Come back Rachel Dolezal, all is forgiven…!

  7. I don’t know how others feel (and really it does not matter how we feel), but the AGU might as well resolve this by expanding fellowship awards to give out to various groups. A general award, one for women, and one for under-represented minorities. Everyone will find salient reasons to object to this, but it does spread the recognitions around and make it possible for the AGU to move on to other things.

    While I am here, have folks here watched the NOVA episode Picture a Scientist? I watched it recently with certain biases and expectations, and what I got was an excellent episode that made me rethink several things.

  8. “Now if they feel that sometimes diversity should trump quality, then they need to make that explicit.”

    What if they believe that diversity IS quality? What will be the implications for science and for the people advanced—and displaced—under such a system, particularly given the pipeline problems from K-12 onward?

    It is distressing to witness the flight from reason that long ago destabilized many humanities, social science, and education departments now plaguing the natural sciences. To what degree, I wonder, have the truly woke infiltrated the STEM fields? How can we distinguish between those who are ideological and playing a purely utilitarian power game—ends justify means, reasoned arguments be damned—and those who in the pursuit of some laudable goals have let empathy overwhelm reason? Perhaps the latter remain persuadable. I remain hopeful that the majority do not share the irrational and illiberal aspects of woke theory and praxis. I am less hopeful that members of this presumed majority will speak out in sufficient numbers and with sufficient force against the woke, their misguided allies, and the opportunists who support them. One may hope that efforts like those of our host can help rally the silent bystanders—silent for whatever reason—to find their voices and stop the pernicious woke influence now visible in a growing number of institutions.

  9. Diversity and quality are incompatible, but the solution is simple: white men should decline to be nominated for any kinds of awards or recognitions. Actors and scientists first.

  10. This episode reminds me of the demand, at some pricey private school in NYC, that any advanced classes that do not have the requisite number of students from favored minorities should be
    eliminated. As for the woke dictum that diversity is equal to (or greater than) quality, this is already officially recognized in the California academic hiring procedures in which candidates are screened out on the basis of their Diversity Statements before any attention to lesser professional qualifications.

    The outcome of a similar set of attitudes, as Anna Krylov pointed out in her Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters article, has already been tested experimentally in a large, Eurasian former country.

    1. I hadn’t heard of that situation with the private school honor classes.

      I’m picturing a few pasty-faced students flitting anxiously from one minority classmate to another, giving tense little commercials for the joys of Advanced Microbiology or 18th Century French Literature, and watching all their prerequisites turn to ash.


    2. ” . . . already officially recognized in the California academic hiring procedures in which candidates are screened out on the basis of their Diversity Statements before any attention to lesser professional qualifications.”

      Would that there were a paucity of candidates and that the institutions had to provide clearly-stated Diversity Statements for potential candidates to consider and critique before they deigned to apply.

      I wonder if universities would decline to hire Nobellists who declined to provide such statements. I hope some Nobellist tests them.

  11. I think the take home is that the task of ensuring diversity of opportunity is a difficult one and that sometimes (often perhaps) it will be done badly and clumsily, as in this case, and end up hurting and disadvantaging people who didn’t deserve to be hurt and disadvantaged.

    If the people doing this recognise that they have stuffed up badly then we should cut them slack and recommend ways they can fix the situation, for example that they should uncancel the fellowships and award them to the best nominees and resolve to improve the situation next time.

    If they don’t recognise that they have made a mistake (and it seems they don’t) then they deserve all the censure and criticism that comes their way.

  12. The one worrying issue here is that the article says that the number of nominations of women has dropped in the last five years, with 2021 as a low point. What does that mean?

    That mid-career opportunities for women and minorities are expanding faster than the undergrad and grad school pipeline are.

    At least, that’s the way I’d bet. Indulging in a potential bit of ageism here, I’d bet that professional workplaces, laboratories, etc. with a mix of 35-65 year old Ph.D.s are probably pretty much welcoming to women (and minorities). But women in undergrad science programs still feel like outsiders. Slow growth in women and minorities wanting to be career scientists + rapid growth in professional workplaces wanting women and minority career scientists = shortfall.

  13. Any selection process that does not result in at least the desired proportion of diverse types is necessarily racist, sexist, and oppressive. To claim otherwise conflicts directly with woke people’s religious beliefs.
    Everyone having exactly equal abilities is so fundamental to their belief systems that even considering the possibility that reality trends otherwise could cause the whole philosophy to collapse.

    It is my observation that woke people have to put their woke beliefs above any other concerns they hold. That is why you will see woke feminists painfully trying to spin an assault as “not actual rape”, when the victim is White (even when a child!), and the perpetrator is higher in the woke hierarchy.

    I expect that cancelling the AGU fellowships was a lesser issue than confronting the possibility that all of the best candidates this time were White guys. One might think that promoting earth science would be a very high priority these days, especially among those working in that field. Apparently this is not the case.

    This is viral activity. Woke people, once they get in to any organization, work tirelessly to transform that organization into one that primarily functions to hire more woke people, and to produce woke propaganda. Whatever product the organization originally produced, that production is not allowed to interfere with the new goals. When the organization fails, the woke move on to a new host.

      1. It is a horrible incident, but a good example of how the media works these days.
        It was in Twin Falls, in 2016.
        If you do a web search, most of what you will find is debunking headlines. But they debunk things that were not part of the original story. They debunk “Three Syrians rape little girl at knifepoint”.
        This is false, because they were Iraqi and Sudanese, and there was no knife.

        The disturbing facts, as best I can find, are as follows:

        The girl was a White, disabled 5 year old. The boys were 7, 10, an 14. The boys took the girl to the laundry room at their apartment complex.
        The older boy filmed, while instructing the younger boys., and apparently did not touch her.
        The boys pushed her against a wall, undressed her, and started molesting her. She was screaming, trying to run away, and at one point got her pants back on and climbed into a washing machine. The boys ended up stripping her, penetrated her orally and anally, then urinated on her clothing, her body, and into her mouth.
        A neighbor, Jolene Payne, who is a retired nurse, heard the girls screams, came into the laundry room and rescued the girl.
        The witness saw the two naked boys molesting the screaming naked girl. she saw that the girl and her clothes were covered with urine. She pulled the girl out, told the boys to get dressed, and the youngest boy told her that the 14year old filming them had made them do it.
        The oldest boy kept the video, because he felt that it proved that he did not actually touch the girl and was thus not responsible.
        The video itself has been viewed in part by the girl’s father, and in full by law enforcement and others.
        It is interesting to me, once I had read the witness statements, how the media put so much effort into debunking the story, and focused on debunking details that must have been added to social media coverage, like the knife or that the boys were claimed to be Syrian.
        Some sites, like Jezebel, claimed early on that the story was nonsense, in part because the boys had not yet been charged, although they later were, including some felony charges. They were convicted.

        The report that really amazed me was from a fairly well known feminist. I will not name her, because I am only 95% sure it was her, and her article has since been scrubbed from her site.
        But she constructed a “not real rape” argument, that was pretty tenuous. I remember at the time looking at some of her past articles about other offenses against women, and that she used the term rape pretty freely. Her response really made a big impression on me. That someone whose primary identification is as a feminist writer would just drop any concern or empathy for the little girl, when her woke politics put a higher priority on minimizing the incident as nothing, or even as a fabrication, because of the race or national origins of the boys.
        Woke feminism seems to lack a basic concern for women, except when they can be used to support woke policies. Woke science puts scientific achievement way down on the priority list as well.

        1. I’d never heard of that incident — really extraordinary and horrible in itself, and the reaction you describe beggars belief. You might be able to find the blog post you mention on’s Wayback Machine, which may have preserved a copy from before it was scrubbed.

    1. The idea that everyone has the same abilities is just a modernised version of the Blank Slate. It follows that *if* the Blank Slate is true then everyone is born equal and any subsequent inequality is the result of evil discrimination.

      But, from observation, not everyone is born equal. Not everyone starts off as a Blank Slate.

      1. My observation is that nobody is equal. Any two people, if you measure their dimensions, strength, or abilities, will show that one always exceeds the other, even if by small amounts. When you start doing the same with groups of people, you will find that some groups tend to exceed others in some categories. Doing so may not explain why those differences exist, but you can verify and quantify their existence.

  14. I recall the issues with affirmative action programs. The underlying presumption was that the pool from which applicants might come, was both diverse and about equally qualifying. To put it more bluntly, the unrealistic assumption was that a sufficient number of fully qualified nonwhite potential applicants was “out there” but were somehow hiding, and the goal was to get out there and unearth them. And I recall that various dubious techniques were applied to make the pool LOOK full of equally qualified nonwhites when in reality this was not the case.

    Today, presumptions have changed. We now are not to question that nonwhites are potentially as fully qualified as whites in every field, but that systemic inherently racist barriers prevent this potential from being realized. Things like de facto segregation, inadequate education from early on, social patterns, and a pervasive sense that there’s no reward for trying, that the deck is stacked before the dealing starts. It’s not that qualified minorities are hiding, it’s that there are so many more and higher hurdles to clear to be equally qualified that at high levels of achievement, the pool of nonwhites is small to nonexistent.

    And THAT is the pool from which potential winners are selected. That life’s ratrace has a “whites only” limit at the starting line. It has not been helpful to simply plunk unqualified people at the finish line to meet some sort of diversity quota or appearance. Efforts to do so have in fact been counterproductive, since minorities at the finish line are simply assumed not to have been able to earn such a position on their merits.

    I think the decision not to select anyone in this case is wrongheaded. One would expect an all-white panel to be selected from a nearly all-white group of nominees, taken from a nearly all-white demographic in the professon itself. The solution here, whatever it is, needs to be applied about 20 years before anyone can even become a geophysicist.

  15. The agu claims “exceptionalism” is the sole criterion, but its not. Gender is also a criterion, and a conflicting one it seems. The agu could set up a male and female category, but that would risk highlighting differences in exceptionalism.
    The agu’s response is analogous to banning new technologies because a much larger percentage of males than females invent the new technologies.

  16. In some cases it may be possible to distinguish candidates’ sex/gender by their names, although even this may be difficult in many cases (Aoife?) But unless candidates are personally known to the panel, in the absence of colored portraits it is impossible to tell whether many names are actually black, white or something in between (Colin Powell? Martin L. King?

  17. It is truly outrageous that the committee ignored the nominations made, in good faith, by the experts of the field, and penalized highly qualified individuals for the “lack of diversity”, which most likely reflects the demographics of the field as it is.

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