The White House launches new program to establish equity in STEMM

January 6, 2023 • 9:30 am

The White House has announced a new Biden-led initiative to improve equity in STEMM fields (the second “M” is now “medicine”) ; you can read the document by clicking on the link below. (It’s a fairly short report, which you can read in. . well, I’m not going to give reading times. It’s short.)  The report diagnoses the problem (unequal representation in science, mostly of racial minorities), gives suppose reasons for those inequities, and proposes five ways to remedy them.

In general the motivation is good, though, as usual, I think that equal opportunity instead of proportional representation should be the goal, for different groups may have different preferences that may lead to “inequities” (representation of groups in proportions not equal to those in the general population). Giving everyone equal opportunity levels the playing field for everyone, so that “inequities” will consequently be due to preferences or other cultural factors rather than bias.

I have only two beefs with Uncle Joe’s plan. First, it explicitly blames inequity in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine) on structural barriers and racism. While the “pipeline problem” for minorities—reduced entry of minorities into the pathway to STEMM success—is real, and due to racism in the past, I don’t think there’s much evidence that, as the report asserts (see below), STEMM fields are rife with racism and harassment.  The claim that there’s racism in awarding NIH grants is also cited in the report, but not the later discovery that those inequities were largely due to minorities choosing to apply for grants in field that aren’t funded as often or as heavily as those chosen by non-minority investigators, as well as to having research track records that were, on average, not as good as other applicants. And studies in which investigators were blinded as to applicant’s race and gender also showed no bias. In light of these studies, it’s quite hard to make a case for systemic racism in science, especially now when schools and Ph.D. programs are fighting to increase minority representation.

What I applaud about the initiative is the explicit aim to intervene early, since that’s the only way to equalize opportunity. And that will take lots of will, dosh, and effort; but it’s the only way to ensure that the U.S. really offers everyone the same chance to succeed.  By the time people are of Ph.D. age, it’s too late. You can achieve equity then, but only by changing the criteria for advancement, not by offering equal opportunity.

But that leads to my second beef: there are inequities in nearly all professional fields—not just science but business, entertainment, and so on. Why limit this initiative to STEMM when what we need is a general equalization of opportunity for everyone? Is it because STEMM is more important? Or because a massive restructuring of society to allow equal opportunity wouldn’t fly?  I don’t know. One thing they’re proposing is beefing up the number of teachers with STEMM expertise in minority communities. That is important, and a good early intervention, but doesn’t it apply to secondary-school teachers as a whole, many of whom are woefully underpaid?

I’m not sure if the proposal will fly given that we don’t even have a Congress yet, and when we do it will be a Republican majority one. But the motivation is good, even if I have a few beefs with the execution and rationale.

Here are the five areas where money and effort are to be invested (quote from White House document).

a.) Action Area 1 – Ensure that students, teachers, workers, communities, and others have adequate support to participate in and contribute to science and technology throughout their lifetimes.

b.) Action Area 2 – Address the STEMM teacher shortage—which disproportionately harms underrepresented students—by investing in a strong and diverse teacher pipeline.

c.)  Action Area 3 – Close the funding gap and support researchers and communities who have been historically excluded from access to key resources

d.) Action Area 4 – Scale solutions that root out bias, discrimination, and harassment in the classroom, laboratory, and workplace

e.) Action Area 5 – Promote accountability across the science and technology ecosystem

The first two are fine and needed. #3 and #5 are designed to promote equity rather than equal opportunity, so I have issues with them. One way to remedy a funding gap is to eliminate any indication of race or minority status from grant applications; that is, the reviewers are blind to the nature of the proposers. That won’t completely solve the potential problem of bias (it’s not too hard to find out who is applying), but it will help. But, as noted above, the NIH studies of this showed no evidence of racial or gender bias.

As I show from the quotes below, Biden’s proposals are weakened by assuming that first, what we need is equity rather than equal opportunity, and second, by assuming that the inequities we see today are due to racism and harassment going on in science now. Area 4 is useful in principle, for bias is against the law, but do we really need more DEI committees given that solutions are already in place?

At any rate, the best thing about this initiative is that it proposes to begin interventions at the beginning of education (indeed, they should be in place at the beginning of life).

Here is what I see as overreach by the committee. In the first bullet point, the landmark 2011 study is now known to constitute no evidence whatsoever for bias.

  • Funds and resources are unevenly available, often exacerbating existing disparities, stunting science, and building distrust of the scientific system. Many documented trends have caused these gaps to grow deeper and wider: Persistent late-career funding trends undermine the potential of early innovation, with the average age for receiving a first significant federal or equivalent grant hovering close to 45, and principal investigators (PIs) over 65 receiving twice as many RO1s as those under 36.[xiv] Studies have consistently shown inequities in the allocation of research funding, including a landmark 2011 NIH study which exposed that Black PIs were funded at roughly half the rate of White PIs.[xv] These problems have early roots, with minority-serving institutions (MSIs), emerging institutions, and community colleges receiving on a small fraction of all of the science and technology research and development funds available each year.[xvi] While many initiatives and programs in federal agencies and academic institutions work to advance community priorities, they are chronically underfunded.

The “landmark 2011 study” was the one cited in later analysis of disparities in grant awards, shown to be due to differences in track records and research areas.  It’s intellectually dishonest for this report cite that “landmark 2011 study” without explaining what the analysis really discovered: no “systemic racism.”

  • Bias, discrimination, and harassment plague the science and technology ecosystem, from school to workforce and beyond. Systemic barriers—including bias, racism, sexism, ableism, exclusion, discrimination, cultural disincentives, and chronic underfunding—deter people of all ages from considering, pursuing, and persisting in science and technology careers and limit participation in science and technology. . .

I find this hard to believe, as it doesn’t jibe with my “lived experience”. For example, I discussed the lack of evidence for “ableism” accounting for evolutionary-biology inequities recently. The authors do cite studies for gender bias as well as racial bias, but these studies seem to depend entirely on self-report and are contradicted by the blind tests mentioned above. They shouldn’t be dismissed because of that, of course, for nobody claims that racism and bias are not evinced by some scientists. The claim at issue, however, is that unequal representation of genders and races at the Ph.D. level or above are almost wholly due to “systemic barriers.” This is a diktat, a claim by fiat, and there are alternative explanations. The reason we don’t often hear them is because if you question the claims above, you’ll be tarred as bigoted.

Because there’s still at least a legacy of racism that holds people back, we shouldn’t ignore the problem. The way to solve it, though, is not to indict science for being rife with sexism and racism. That solves nothing. The way to not hold people back is to give them equal opportunity to achieve—to fulfill their ambitions—right at the beginning of life.  That is a cure rather than the Band-aids often offered as remedies.

53 thoughts on “The White House launches new program to establish equity in STEMM

    1. And you’re stopping commenting here for being such a mushbrain, for I support Biden and voted for him, and if you read this site, you’ll know that I’ve called him “Uncle Joe” in affection for two years. Anybody who stops reading a post for that phrase, and out of complete ignorance about how I used it, will not be allowed to participate on this site. You could apologize, but I doubt it.

      It’s idiotic to stop reading a post because of stuff like that, especially when you don’t know what I mean.

    2. The “uncle” also suggests – per the Seinfeld character Uncle Leo – a sort of awkwardness, a sort of off-centered incongruity, _together_with_ acceptance of the whole person – a “yeah, I know, but he’s alright.”

      In sharp relief with other Presidents Who Shall Not Be Named.

      I’m done! I’m done!

  1. ” STEMM fields (the second “M” is now “medicine”) ; ”

    So the game is up with “STEM” cheerleading right there – STEM was supposed to be like fundamental branches of a tree, developing/leading to larger syntheses of those fields – “pre-med”, for instance. I could see the reasoning for it.

    Now someone just said “hey, medicine sounds and looks better that just “STEM”, and it’s a great career, hey, why not just write “M” in there”.

    … even though medical school _folllws_ a pre-med undergrad major (at least).

    1. And then there’s the push by humanities professors to increase enrollment by adding the arts to STEM… STEAM.

      “STEM represents science, technology, engineering and maths. “STEAM” represents STEM plus the arts – humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media. The main difference between STEM and STEAM is STEM explicitly focuses on scientific concepts. STEAM investigates the same concepts, but does this through inquiry and problem-based learning methods used in the creative process.”

  2. “plague the science and technology ecosystem, from school to workforce and beyond”

    Talk about melodrama.

  3. Reasonable analysis. As the move to demise of public education and adding faith base rules increased motivation for all kids to learn seems lost

  4. Is there any actual evidence for racism etc within science?

    They must realise that, in western culture, racism is heavily demonised, so that accusing people of racism without evidence is a very aggressive and offensive thing to do.

    Of course if you have any society or organisation where people belong to different groups then there will be some between-group tensions which may manifest in various ways. However, all the evidence we have suggests that the postwar West is the most tolerant, inclusive, egalitarian society that the world has ever known.

  5. I think that racism of the past is an incomplete explanation for present day differences in outcome. I think that cultural values and traditions also play a role (perhaps even a larger one). I don’t think we should expect cultures that place different levels of emphasis on education (vs other pursuits) to have the same level of educational outcome. However this is not necessarily a bad thing, the fact that race and culture are so tightly bound together is the problem. If different cultures have different values with regards to academic excellence as compared to things like dance, sports, and music that helps bring a greater richness to the human experience. A major issue is that life outcomes are so closely tied to which culture a person belongs. The arts add a great deal of richness to our experience and yet only the most famous artists can really make a good living at it. I also think we need to work to end the racial and ethnic segregation that causes cultural boundaries to be closely tied to racial/ethnic boundaries.

    Only if we both had, and found desirable, a homogenous culture in which all individuals valued all things equally would we expect people of all cultural backgrounds to have similar levels of educational outcome.

    1. Agreed.

      Kids of one ethnic minority in the US today grow up surrounded by “mood music” that the way to get ahead is to excel at academic work and school exams, that they need to take responsbility for their own fate, and that they need to put in sustained hard work to that end.

      Kids of another ethnic minority grow up surrounded by “mood music” that maths and science are “racist”, that trying hard at school amounts to “acting white”, that there’s no point in trying anyhow since society is rigged against them, that nothing is ever their fault, and that the way to get ahead is to ask for reparations.

      Guess which group then needs “affirmative action” when it comes to admission to the Ivy League?

      1. Re: “Systemic barriers—including bias, racism, sexism, ableism, exclusion, discrimination, cultural disincentives . . . .”

        Just what are these “cultural disincentives” mentioned in the document? Are Intellectually curiosity and hard work a couple of them?

  6. Far be it from me to pontificate on the new acronym, but of course medicine deserves a place amongst the other sciences. On the other hand, there seems to be quite a few instances of fifth letters leading to more. Perhaps we can limit the acronym -er, uh, creep (?) on this institution by calling it “STEMMPY” –giving a nod to physics and …and, uh, Yak studies (we don’t hear enough about them in mainstream media). Tacking anymore letters after the Y might become something of a challenge.

  7. Whatever we define “race” as, it is an inherited factor.

    STEM subjects including “hard” sciences, and medical school especially are known for “difficulty”.

    Is it likely that individuals successful in “hard” sciences or medicine may have benefited from a family investment in such success? I cite scientists off the top of my head William and Lawrence Bragg, or the Haldanes. Certainly their are family lineages of physicians.

    Is that what the scientific advisors in The White House mean by examples of “racist/racism/racial” bias or advantage that must be eradicated?

  8. We should be clear that when they say “equity” they mean only equality of outcomes, which means that everything will be viewed through the lens of race. It means that black chemists and doctors, as examples, will be turned out regardless of their abilities, which is a disservice to them and to society.

  9. I continue to scratch my head over proportional representation being promoted as the goal of antiracism. To me, this is just the old, discredited quota system in new guise. I think Kendi and his ilk fall back on this because it gives the appearance of being being scientific—we’re dealing with numbers here, after all—and thus neutral and fair. In this connection, I recall something Mencken wrote: “Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.”

  10. I think that the Biden administration is using the word “equity” in part because it’s ambiguous. The word could be taken to mean equity of opportunities or equity of outcomes. Use of that ambiguous word is a convenient way to avoid having to deal with the distinction between opportunities and outcomes. It’s a way to sound like you’re doing the right thing without creating waves. I’m for equity of opportunity. Outcomes will take care of themselves. The administration should clarify what they mean.

    1. Norman, I found those cartoons you get when you do a Google image search for “equity” helpful to my understanding. It really does mean giving each person what ever extra quantity of an unlimited resource it takes to achieve equal outcomes. Look for the ones of brown-skinned people trying to see over a ballpark fence. The cartoons, even the sincere ones, are all outcomes-oriented and they give no clue where the resources come from. Equity is just a less loaded word that sounds less like quotas and doesn’t instantly alienate us traditional economic liberals the way rigged equality does. Equality is actually bad, from the equity-purveyor’s point of view.

      The short guy trying to see over the ballpark fence gets two milk crates to stand on so he can freeload on the ballgame equally with the tall guy, who gets no crate. That’s equity. Equality would be if they each got one crate to stand on. The tall guy could see super well and chat with the outfielders but the short guy still couldn’t see. We’re not told from whom they stole the crates though, nor is it made clear why either of them has the right to watch the game for free in the first place. There are sincere versions, “justice” I think, where vandals come and tear down the whole fence so everyone can see for free. (In one parody the ballpark owner adds to the height of the reinforced fence so neither can see and posts a sign pointing to the box office.)

      It’s clear that equality of outcome is what equity is really all about. The equity part is just how much extra resources you have to give the weak or incompetent in order to that they achieve those equal outcomes. It makes it sound like you don’t kneecap the strong, you just give extra help to the weak. But the only source of resources for the weak in real life is the strong. So in another parody you saw off the tall guy’s legs to make stilts for the short guy to stand on. Being sawn off, the once-tall guy can no longer see over the fence (and will soon bleed to death) but the short guy can, so all is good.

      The other assumption is that if you put enough resources into the weak, they all can thrive. If they aren’t thriving, it’s a sign they need more resources. If the short guy is too lazy to climb up onto the crates, the tall guy has to lift him up onto his shoulders.

      I think equity is intended to make us think that we are identifying and correcting deficits in starting conditions. Then we start the race and let the best man win in a now-fair contest. But in real life, if our favoured and indulged competitor still loses, we didn’t try hard enough on the equity part. And so we just make the actual winner give two-thirds of his prize to the loser and call it fair.

      1. That cartoon is another example of what Mencken meant in :

        “Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem–neat, plausible, and

        H. L. Mencken
        From “The Divine Afflatus”, section IV in
        Prejudices : Second Series

        … it’s a great, oft-cited quote, eh?

  11. I apologize for violating Da Rool of comments so one last one from me :

    Haidt and Lukianoff recount an example in their book “Coddling of the American Mind” of how to get people of opposing viewpoints to connect : something like drawing a _larger_ circle of humanity to enclose their interests.

    I look for where this larger circle drawing is in The White House’s directives, and how it _empowers_ individuals genuinely trapped by racial circumstance.

    I’m done I’m done!

    1. Well, I’m sorry but a. I didn’t know that, and b. I’ve used “Uncle Joe” as a term of affection since he was elected.

      Since you’re implying that I’m lying in how I use it, you’re tuchas is booted off this site.

      I also see that you’re using multiple names to comment on this thread–you posted as “Mark” above. That’s another banning offense. At least there’s only one mushbrain on this thread instead of two.

      1. Biden himself has embraced the name ‘uncle Joe’ for years. When the New Puritanism begins to say we can no longer decide what we call ourselves…. well, there’s trouble a’brewing there.

  12. For a report that you find so much specific and well-argued fault with, you seem incongruously happy with the general thrust. Your “two beefs”, again well-founded, would seem to undermine the moral integrity of the whole plan. OK, more and better trained science teachers in mostly-Black high schools, sure. But that’s not what will likely happen given the assumptions of the proposal. You’ll just get more DEI commissars.

    Oh well, as you say, it’ll likely never become law anyway.

  13. STEMM is a new one on me although I have come across STEAM, which rather self-defeatingly includes Arts – although according to Wikipedia other variations attribute the A to “Applied” (Mathematics) and “Agriculture”.

  14. These conversations always remind me of this humorous piece by Philip Greenspun on women in science. The whole thing is worth reading.

    This article explores this fourth possible explanation for the dearth of women in science: They found better jobs.

    Why does anyone think science is a good job?

    The average trajectory for a successful scientist is the following:

    1. age 18-22: paying high tuition fees at an undergraduate college
    2. age 22-30: graduate school, possibly with a bit of work, living on a stipend of $1800 per month
    3. age 30-35: working as a post-doc for $30,000 to $35,000 per year
    4. age 36-43: professor at a good, but not great, university for $65,000 per year
    5. age 44: with (if lucky) young children at home, fired by the university (“denied tenure” is the more polite term for the folks that universities discard), begins searching for a job in a market where employers primarily wish to hire folks in their early 30s

    This is how things are likely to go for the smartest kid you sat next to in college. He got into Stanford for graduate school. He got a postdoc at MIT. His experiment worked out and he was therefore fortunate to land a job at University of California, Irvine. But at the end of the day, his research wasn’t quite interesting or topical enough that the university wanted to commit to paying him a salary for the rest of his life. He is now 44 years old, with a family to feed, and looking for job with a “second rate has-been” label on his forehead.

    Why then, does anyone think that science is a sufficiently good career that people should debate who is privileged enough to work at it? Sample bias.

    Suppose that you go to the airport trying to figure out how crowded the airplanes are. You stand by the baggage claim and ask people “How full was your flight?” You write up your conclusions: Most flights are nearly full. The sample bias here comes from the fact that full flights contain more people than empty flights. At an airport, you are much more likely to encounter someone who just stepped off a packed flight than someone who was on a plane that was only one-third full.

    College undergraduates do the same thing in choosing careers. One of my students, we’ll call him Bill, in an introductory computer science class said that he wanted to be a biologist when he grew up. What biologists had Bill met? They were all professors at MIT and about half of them had won the Nobel Prize. This is hardly an average sample of people who went to Biology graduate school! Fortunately, Bill was a tall good-looking fellow. He managed to score himself a lovely girlfriend during the semester, we’ll call her Theresa. Theresa was a biology postdoc, with a PhD from an elite institution and a plum job at MIT. Bill got to see how Theresa was treated in the lab, count her working hours, see the pay stubs she received as a young woman in her 30s with a PhD, wave goodbye as she got fired after her experiment did not work out, and write email to Theresa at her new postdoc at Stanford. By the end of the semester, Bill said, “I think I want to be an architect.”

  15. I too agree that investing in earlier intervention and in education is a good thing, but overall this vision document heralds further decline of science in the US. It is based on falsehoods. Two more glaring ones are: existence of systemic racism in science, which affects distribution of resources (e.g., grants) and that science advances somehow do not benefit the poor. Neither is supported by the evidence. Jerry commented on the first one and I can add that looking in depth into the studies that claim the existence of biases often shows that the studies are garbage. I’ve done this with a help of statistician for a study about gender biases in publishing. The science benefited the poor tremendously, by reducing childhood mortality, and other form of suffering due to deceases and malnutrition. I also not happy to see calls for “accountability” – that means more DEI bureaucracy. And Jerry already highlighted that calls to “equity”… Note that this comes from the office from which Biden purged real scientists (Eric Lander) and injected social scientists — experts in racism and CRT. This is a direct result of this, I think. There is no hope…

  16. PCC(e) asks: ” but do we really need more DEI committees?” The document in question undoubtedly comes from a presidential advisory office which is itself, in effect, a DEI committee. DEI committees are dedicated, above all, to the generation of more and more of copies of themselves, exactly analogous to virus replication. One wonders whether unlimited DEI replication will ultimately kill the host, i.e., US scientific research in this case, US
    academia more generally. One can hope that an equilibrium will be reached instead, like chronic viral infection, with a viral load which weakens but does not quite kill the patient.

  17. Frankly, I’m not sure why we shouldn’t ignore “the problem.” Yes, we want fairness in hiring and equal opportunity but there is an implicit assumption that all races will do equally well in all professions while simultaneously knowing that certain demographics are well behind others. Why is there a belief that their grant proposals or job performance will be equally meritorious while simultaneously acknowledging there is a performance gap that may make them less competitive or less qualified?

    At this point in history, I think there may be a greater risk to the future of the USA by compromising excellence standards and penalizing competence based on phenotype than the current moral panic wherein underrepresented groups may experience discrimination or feel disenfranchised. Unequal treatment is always a problem (and persists) but it’s never been better in history than it is today.

    PCC writes: “The way to not hold people back is to give them equal opportunity to achieve—to fulfill their ambitions—right at the beginning of life. That is a cure rather than the Band-aids often offered as remedies.”

    I don’t disagree with you but I’m not sure the government can move this needle as far as we might presume. Isn’t there a genetic component here (Asians performing especially well), the importance of good parenting by smart parents (and ideally, two of them) who value education and instill it in their kids with performance expectations? Conversely, aren’t there predictors of poor school performance like poverty and safe homes without violence and school districts with poor schools that have less resources and lower budgets because they are inextricably linked to the tax base of their zip codes? How will the goverment overcome disparities this deep and systemic and why do we think the desired outcome will ultimately reflect a better or fairer outcome than if continued as we are?

    It’s like affirmative action…what outcome do you seek and when will you know if we’ve arrived at the destination?

  18. >” . . .school districts with poor schools that have less resources and lower budgets because they are inextricably linked to the tax base of their zip codes?”

    Is that really true? It’s a complaint often raised about “equity”. Several people have posted here whenever this topic comes up that the state governments give grants to school districts with lower property-tax revenue to reduce the effect of local prosperity on local school budgets. We do this in Canada but I don’t know how it works in the States. I’m curious.

  19. Usually in such cases, it’s STEM(M), or the boards of large corporations, or whatever. Name me ONE field in which the fraction of each group is (within the statistical noise) the same as in the population in general. Just one. There might be some, but there aren’t that many. It seems to me that whatever the goal is, equal opportunity (my own goal) or equity, then if it is that important, then it should apply everywhere, with no exceptions.

  20. The best way forward would be to make the quality of education independent of the parents of students, not only financially. Witness countries in Europe where there is no tuition for any sort of education and even doctoral students are paid a decent salary rather than having to pay tuition. (The typical postdoc salary is the same as that of a high-school teacher, which is enough for a family to live on even with just one salary. Remember, you don’t have to save for college for the children, being sick won’t bankrupt you, etc.)

    1. Where does the money for all that come from? If someone is getting something for paying nothing, then someone else is getting paid nothing for doing something. Does xenophobic social cohesion really tug that tightly?

      1. Medical students could provide service of value – that would count, I think – saving lives, decreasing misery – that sort of thing.

    2. “… make the quality of education independent of the parents of students, ”

      Shouldn’t we simply look at the United States for the full materialization of that idea?

Leave a Reply