The Department of Energy (DoE) hands out a substantial number of grants for research (mostly in physics), as well as for science meetings. Here is their latest announcement about what you have to do if you want the DoE to help fund your conference.
You know what’s coming: when applying for funds, you have to submit a statement that you will increase the “equity” of speakers above that represented in the scientific community involved in the meeting, and have a plan in place, announced to attendees, that will “address discrimination and harassment.”
Beginning in FY 2023, applications submitted to the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science (SC) requesting funding support for conferences will have additional requirements that must be included with the application.
The following language included in the FY 2023 Continuation of Solicitation for the Office of Science Financial Assistance Program Funding Opportunity Announcement defines the new requirement:
Consistent with SC’s Statement of Commitment, SC does not tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind, including sexual or non-sexual harassment, bullying, intimidation, violence, threats of violence, retaliation, or other disruptive behavior at institutions receiving SC funding or other locations where activities funded by SC are carried out. Further, SC is committed to advancing belonging, accessibility, justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion across the portfolio of activities it sponsors. For applications requesting SC funds for the purpose of supporting (hosting) a conference, symposium, or workshop, the meeting must have a policy or code of conduct in place that addresses discrimination and harassment, including sexual harassment, other forms of harassment, and sexual assault, and that includes processes for reporting complaints and addressing complaints. The policy or code-of-conduct must be shared with all participants prior to the conference, symposium, or workshop (hereinafter the ‘meeting’) and made easily available.
Applications must include:
- An online link to the current code of conduct of the host organization for the meeting, or the link to where the code of conduct will be posted. If a code of conduct has not yet been established by the meeting organizers, the application must describe the process and timeline by which a code of conduct will be written, approved, and endorsed.
- A recruitment and accessibility plan for speakers and attendees that includes discussion of recruitment of individuals from groups underrepresented in the research/professional community associated with the technical focus of the meeting, and discussion on plans to address possible barriers for attendees, including but not limited to physical barriers.
This is not as invidious as the platform Jon Haidt recently reported for the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, which requires every speaker to include a rationale of how their individual talk would advance DEI. As Haidt wrote then:
. . . all social psychologists are now required to submit a statement explaining “whether and how this submission advances the equity, inclusion, and anti-racism goals of SPSP.” Our research proposal would be evaluated on older criteria of scientific merit, along with this new criterion.
Informed that the SPSP would not back down on this requirement, Haidt announced he would resign.
Now I’m not adamantly opposed to amplifying the voices of those who are underrepresented in science, but I would suggest that all talks be judged on merit and suitability alone, with the diversity issues perhaps addressed in a separate symposium representing different viewpoints. And if two proposed talks are equally qualified, I have no issue with choosing ones from women, Hispanics, blacks, and so on. This does constitute a form of affirmative action, but it is not one that lowers the bar for scientific quality. (Another method is to leave the names of proposed speakers and their affiliations off proposals, which ensures equality if not equity.)
Rather, I’m concerned with the last sentence requiring “discussion on plans to address possible barriers for attendees, including but not limited to physical barriers.” What does this mean? My first thought was to assure the grant-givers that there would be facilities for the handicapped (i.e., elimination of physical barriers), but that doesn’t appear to be the case. If you amplify the voices of minorities by deliberately choosing some minority speakers who are as well qualified as non-minority speakers, then you have eliminated one barrier—discrimination on the grounds of sex or race. What else can the meeting do beyond this? What is the sweating DoE trying to say?
But in some ways I’m more concerned with the paternalistic “codes of conduct” that are becoming increasingly elaborate at meetings, to the point where they may have reduced possible collaborations between men and women scientists. My view is that a simple statement like this would suffice in a conference announcement:
“If anyone witnesses or feels they are a victim of harassment or sexual misconduct, please report this to X.”
But it has gotten to the point where meetings spend a lot of money hiring professional “conduct consultants” to monitor behavior. If you want to see how elaborate they can get, have a look at the “Safe Evolution” page of last June’s joint meeting of the Society for the Study of Evolution, the American Society of Naturalists, and the Society of Systematic Biologists, which includes four sub-pages on inappropriate conduct, reporting procedures, and so on. These elaborate procedures wind up infantilizing scientists, all seen as potential predators. It’s especially galling that almost no objectionable conduct actually occurs at such meetings, and societies already have procedures in place to deal with it.
The worst part of this joint meeting is the presence of “Evo Allies”. This is a synonym for “conduct spies”, society members with tags who roam about the conference halls and poster presentations, overhearing conversations and looking for inappropriate behavior. They are empowered to report such behavior even if no participants do:
Started in 2019, Evo Allies are members of our community who have been vetted by a safety officer and trained to help support individuals who have experienced or witnessed potentially inappropriate behavior during the conference, including informing them of their options. They commit to creating safe spaces at the meeting by serving as active bystanders. The inspiration for this program came from the https://entoallies.org program.
Anyone, whether an Evo Ally or not, can make a report directly to the meeting safety officer for investigation; Evo Allies are not involved in investigation nor sanctioning, but instead serve as peer supports and help to make the meeting a more welcoming place.
Evo Allies are chosen through a nomination and vetting process; we anticipate that the next call will be for the 2023 meeting. Any vetting process is imperfect; if you have concerns about any Evo Ally, please reach out to the meeting safety officer.
In other words, the Big Brothers have to be Big Brotherized as well!
This Big Brotherism will result in chilling speech and behavior that can be inimical to scientific discourse. If you doubt that, read Luana Maroja‘s piece at the Heterodox STEM forum, “Extreme emphasis on sexual harassment stifles productive scientific discourse between men and women.” She went to the 2019 meetings of the three societies named above and reports this:
In 2019 my professional society (The Society for the Study of Evolution – SSE) hired a consultant to help “prevent sexual harassment at the [annual] conference.” The initiative consisted of training volunteers to be “allies” (they got buttons and walked among us signaling their role as meeting police), projecting messages (powerpoint slides) on the walls of the poster session saying “stop harassment now,” and putting posters in all bathrooms along with anonymous boxes for depositing complaints about harassment. This came at a cost: about $10 dollars increase in registration fees per participant, resulting in tens of thousands in the consultant’s pocket. But aside from cost, are these initiatives a net positive or a net negative for scientific interactions?
I have been attending the SSE meetings since 2003. Compared to conferences in my home country, Brazil, SSE conferences were a paradise – nobody ever grabbed my rear end, said nasty things in my ear or followed me around. Yes, there was the normal degree of flirting, but it was polite, with people backing off when they were rebuffed. Perhaps I have thick skin, but I don’t think anyone would say that serious harassment or sexual violence were commonplace at the American meetings, and there were already procedures in place—involving both the local police and the conference administrators—to deal with serious offences. Many people think it’s a good thing to raise awareness about even minor actions that might be perceived as unwanted attention. But is it?
When I saw what the organizers were doing, I was immediately concerned about the chilling effect it would have on interactions between the sexes. In my life I have benefited from great relationships with my male advisor and other senior male researchers. I would not want men to be afraid of talking, interacting and collaborating with me merely because their actions might be misinterpreted. Wondering if men were actually more cautious about interacting with women and in particular junior women (in general, not only at conferences), I started asking around. As I expected, many men secretly confided to me that yes, they do not volunteer to mentor junior women and are circumspect when talking to junior women PhD students out of fear of misinterpretation. I could swear I even saw people taking a step back as the “police allies” walked past them! However, my sample is not only small, but biased – I could ask only men I already knew well and was friendly with, not a random sample of the research population. But now we have data – the first study looking at the effects of the #MeToo movement on female research collaborations in economics: Gertsberg, Marina, The Unintended Consequences of #MeToo: Evidence from Research Collaborations (May 10, 2022). Available at SRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4105976 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4105976.
Maroja then presents evidence (not dispositive but correlative) that the #MeToo movement was significantly associated with a reduction of new collaborations between male and female scientists, particularly (as would be expected) for scientists within rather than between institutions. If this is an effect of fear of accusations, then it’s inimical to scientific collaboration, especially to women. As Maroja notes,
The data shows clearly that new collaborations are strongly and significantly reduced inside institutions (where the fear of harassment accusations will be highest). The paper also shows that, where the fear is highest (in institutions where harassment accusations are common and policies are vague), the reduction in collaborations is also higher.
This represents a huge loss to both men and women, but it especially harms women. Indeed, the academic output of females fell significantly after #MeToo (a decrease of between 0.7-1.7 projects per year, with the loss in male collaborators explaining 60% of this decline), while the output of males did not (they were apparently able to find other male collaborators). This decrease in collaboration is apparently also happening in other fields, such as fundamental physics [she then gives more data]. . . .
Now nobody here, including Maroja and me, is saying that men shouldn’t be punished for sexual harassment of women (and vice versa), nor that people should not be aware of the consequences of such behavior. The point is that this kind of policing has gone too far at scientific meetings, to the point where roving spies are empowered to report suspicious incidents. Scientists should not be treated like potential criminals or harassers. As Maroja notes,
It’s clear that well-intentioned actions (protecting women from harassment) can be taken too far. I hope that our scientific professional societies will absorb these data and start taking steps to bring people together rather than separate them. Good starts would be clarifying harassment policies and keeping “harassment consultants”, who profit from promoting the idea that harassment is everywhere, out of conferences. Another important step would be to eliminate anonymous complaints, which set the bar for a complaint too low and can be used for revenge and to bring down competitors and enemies. Both of these effects lead men to worry about what they might be accused of and to thus limit interactions with women. Finally, any sexual harassment judgements should only be made after a pre-defined, fair process where the accused can challenge the accuser– a person should be considered innocent until proven guilty.
I’ll finish by saying that while it’s the government’s responsibility to help the disadvantaged of society, regardless of race or sex, that help must be more than performative or superficial. It must involve expensive, long-term interventions by the government, like Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” program. I approve of these, as it’s really the only way to open the “intake valve” of the pipeline to success. Requiring talks or meetings to have a specific ideological bent is far less helpful, and in some ways can be counterproductive. The purpose of scientific societies is to advance science and its communication, not to further the goals of progressive politics.
UPDATE: I just found an op-ed piece on the DoE policies by Lawrence Krauss at the Wall Street Journal (where else could it be published?): “Now even science grants must bow to ‘equity and inclusion”. He mentions the meeting policies noted above, but also says that the DoE now requires “equity and inclusion plans” in every grant proposal:
Starting in fiscal 2023, which began Oct. 1, every proposal responding to a solicitation from the Office of Science is required to include a PIER plan, which stands for Promoting Inclusive and Equitable Research, to “describe the activities and strategies of the applicant to promote equity and inclusion as an intrinsic element to advancing scientific excellence.” In the words of the announcement, “The complexity and detail of a PIER Plan is expected to increase with the size of the research team and the number of personnel to be supported.”
He adds that none of his own past work funded by the DoE had anything to do with diversity and inclusion, but were concerned with scientific questions involving gravity waves, dark matter, and other intriguing issues. Now he, like everyone else who wants a DoE grant, will have to dissimulate to get money:
Scientists will respond to these new demands with boilerplate to the effect that they will make every effort to seek graduate and postdoctoral students from minority communities and encourage new outreach programs. This is lip service at best; it doesn’t address true societal issues of inequity. People qualified to work in these esoteric areas have all gone to good graduate schools and carried out credible research projects. They may be minorities, but they haven’t been marginalized. They are thus not appropriate targets for what should be useful societal diversity initiatives.
It is the job of government agencies, and not ones concerned with advancing science, to carry out such political policies. If we’re going to turn scientists and their societies into arms for achieving approved societal aims, why do they always involve racial or gender “equity and inclusion”? Why not deal with socioeconomic issues, which include marginalized racial and gender groups, or with the disadvantaged in other countries—something that our government already has as a primary goal?
Better yet, why don’t we let scientists and scientific societies do what they do best—find out stuff about the universe and report it—and let government policies be carried out by the appropriate agencies? Diverting the efforts of scientists to fixing societal issues turns us into arms of public policy, detracting from what we are trained to do best: science.