White House plan to foster equity and excellence in STEMM is all about equity, not excellence

January 30, 2023 • 9:35 am

In December the White House released a longish plan to “transform” STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine) in the U.S. It turns out that the main goal—if not the only one—is equity, and there’s precious little mention of making science more “excellent”. Click to read:


I don’t want to go over this line by line, but I’ll give a few extracts to show you that this initiative has virtually nothing to do with improving excellence, but everything to do with improving equity: i.e., ensuring that the proportion of members of the two sexes or of diverse ethnic groups who are funded, who get jobs, or who go into the STEMM pipeline are roughly equal to their proportion in the U.S. population.

Further, the present inequities in STEMM are automatically assumed and loudly ascribe to ongoing “structural racism”, bigotry, and so on. That assumption, of course, is not only unwarranted, but anyone in science knows that graduate schools and hiring programs are doing everything they can to bring women and ethnic minorities into the field.  Sure, there may be some bigots here and there (I’ve never encountered any scientist trying to deny opportunity to someone because of their sex or ethnicity, but that’s just my lived experience); but I simply can’t discern features of the field itself that have been put in place to perpetuate inequities.

This proposal, in other words, is identical to the “progressive” editorials appearing in every science journal around. I didn’t think Biden and his administration would capitulate to the woke demands for equity (I favor equal opportunity, not proportional outcomes), but at least they have in STEMM. The administration is much more “progressive” than I thought, though had I know that I still would have voted for Biden, as there’s simply no way I’d mark a ballot for Trump. (“Progressive” is my synonym for “woke,” since every time I use the “w” word I get Pecksniffs writing me to say, “I would have read your post but then you said ‘woke’ and I stopped reading.”)

Can you increase excellence by increasing equity? That seems to be the tacit assumption of this program, but one for which there is very little evidence. (The classic paper supporting the idea that diversity itself increases net excellence is this 2004 PNAS paper, arguing that diverse groups do better at solving math problems than groups of high achievers. But this it was a mathematical model with no empirical data, and was later found to be fatally flawed.) There are no strategies in this document intended to increase excellence by itself, though plenty to increase equity by itself. Excellence is just seen as an inevitable byproduct of equity (my bolding below):

To achieve these urgent priorities, people across all sectors must meet the President’s call to confront and overcome the challenges that prevent us from having a science and technology ecosystem defined by both equity and excellence.

The national vision for STEMM equity and excellence calls for bold concerted leadership, focusing our national efforts and synchronizing cross-sector initiatives across five core action areas. Each action area proposes promising practices, sources over the course of OSTP’s national engagement, to focus interventions:

At least insofar as affirmative actions are concerned, those are predicated on the view that there is an antithesis between excellence and equity, ergo you must sacrifice excellence (at least in terms of formal scientific achievements or qualifications) to achieve equity.  Now that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive for more diversity (although I think it’s misguided to try for “equity”), but we need to recognize that that is a social goal, in which diversity is seen as an inherent good (as in Powell’s crucial opinion in the Bakke decision) or as a form of reparations.

Here are some bits of the paper, the first one seeming to indict science in an unfair way.  And I would contest the first sentence (bolding mine):

Despite this track record of national leadership, history has shown that new investments in science and technology rarely translate to equitable results for all peoples and communities without sustained, intentional effort. Indeed, such advances have often served to deepen inequality and reinforce systemic barriers, with the benefits of science and technology not reaching all communities equally. Further, our science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine ecosystem shuts out and diverts away too many talented individuals, limiting opportunities for discovery and innovation, and our national potential for the greatest impact.

Do such inequities fall on science’s doorstep? I think not. If minority communities didn’t get their Covid vaccines equitably, that can be due to a host of other factors, though of course anyone who wanted to get vaccinated could do so.

As the paper notes (their bolding), “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.

For some reason characterizing STEMM as an “ecosystem” irks me, as there’s a biological meaning for that word that doesn’t correspond to its usage above. Why not just say “STEMM”? The word “ecosystem” appears 27 times in this document, while there are 11 uses of “equity”, 5 of “excellence”, and none of “merit.”

Back to the document. Here’s an example they give imply structural racism. But it’s construed wrongly:

  • 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. 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. 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. While many initiatives and programs in federal agencies and academic institutions work to advance community priorities, they are chronically underfunded.

The problem is that that 2011 study showed that the existing funding disparities were not caused by bias in grant reviewing (which a study showed did not exist), but on the fact that black investigators tended to apply for money in fields that were not well funded and also had poorer “track records” in publishing as shown on the NIH-required c.v.s  I discussed this 2011 study and the problems with the bias explanation on this website.  Didn’t the White House know of these explanations? Apparently not. They’d prefer to let people think it’s due to structural racism in the NIH.

Now the good stuff. After issuing a spate of accusations of how science is riddled with misogyny and racism, the document proposes some fixes to achieve equity. Some of these are fine, as they actually buttress opportunity, which is what I would go for. They also try to buttress good science teaching, which I’m always for.  Here are some proposals I like (you can read the document yourself to see ones that aren’t so good):

  • Offer opportunities at every stage of life, education, and career to help people enter STEMM, such as clearer pathways between early- and first-exposure science and technology experiences, those that focus on middle school girls and gender non-conforming youth, and existing scholarships and research experiences at community, vocational, and four-year colleges and universities.
  • Create opportunities for professional learning, and leadership along with the opportunity to work collaboratively within and across schools and learning communities.
  • Leverage and increase access to affordable, comprehensive, evidence-based pre-service teacher preparation programs.
  • Support teachers in earning initial, additional, or advanced certification in high-demand areas such as computer science.
  • Provide resources for experiential STEMM learning and research experiences for students and teachers in classrooms and in extra-curricular settings.
  • Support mechanisms that provide science and mathematics teachers with living wages and help to pay off forms of educational debt.
  • Fund and incentivize public participation and engagement in science and make participation in science accessible to the public in spaces that are already used.

There are others I like, but you can see that some of the proposals are designed to increase opportunity rather than ensure proportional outcome, while others want to fund and support science teachers who, like most secondary-school teachers, are grossly underpaid considering what they do and how important they are. (Many of us became scientists because we were turned on by good, passionate, and charismatic teachers.)

By concentrating its plans for the future of science on achieving equity rather than equal opportunity, and by completely ignoring merit and ways to create excellence by itself, the White House document is scuppering the future of science. And by characterizing science as a roiling hotbed of bigotry, racism, and structural features designed to hold down the oppressed, the document also insults science itself.


19 thoughts on “White House plan to foster equity and excellence in STEMM is all about equity, not excellence

  1. Something is MMEST up with the proposal’s weighting of its priorities.

    And “Ecosystem” indeed is irksome language in this setting, coming straight out of “geek” gadget reviews.

  2. There are very clear ways in which bias can be “embodied” in artifacts; hence the need to have some sort of equity as a constraint in engineering and technological fields generally. But in basic science (including our host’s biology) this is nonsense; that’s why one has to look elsewhere (e.g., funding, etc.) But Jerry is right – one cannot merely assert that these are suffering from inequities (and I would dare say that they exist too – but far before the university situation – and they are likely classbased.)

  3. The evidence linking diversity to excellence is weak, and counter examples are rarely cited. In this one, mixed-sex working groups often have lower-quality outcomes than single-sex groups, and the experiments reveal a mechanism that accounts for the difference.


  4. Many of the actual initiatives make sense, but the premise that STEM fields are today rotten with bias is wrong, and promoting that premise with little evidence seem more performative than sincere.

    Because people choose STEM for different reasons, and because members of some groups rarely choose STEM at all, equity (meaning equal representation) cannot be the right goal. We shouldn’t try to shoehorn people into STEM fields against their will, should we? Of course not. The goal should be equality of opportunity, for which we should vigorously strive. With equality of opportunity in place, proportional representation will result—proportional to interest and desire.

  5. I think this removes all doubt that progressives have captured the Democratic party, much the way populists captured the GOP.

    1. STEM
      + DEI

      You know what to do – solve it!

      (BTW this is an alphametics puzzle. They can be generated on various websites. I presented the more mature if the possibilities. BTW I did not solve it. A computer did).

  6. The White House discovery of structural racism rooted in the US science “ecosystem” is much like the discovery reported by I. I. Prezent in 1947. In a Leningrad Pravda article, he noted: “At the imperialist stage of its development, festering capitalism has brought forth a stillborn mongrel of biology, the thoroughly metaphysical, antihistorical doctrine of formal genetics.” But Prezent prescribed a cure for this affliction in the USSR: “The latest decisions of the Party Central Committee on ideological questions …require us to root out any remnants whatsoever of groveling before foreign trends and to boldly expose decaying and decadent bourgeois culture.” We are so lucky to have Progressive staffers in the White House who may be able do for US science generally what Prezent and his associates did for biological science in the Soviet Union.

  7. As Kenan Malik wrote in The Observer yesterday:

    Equality and diversity are not, however, synonymous. Even as societies and institutions have become more diverse, many have also become more unequal. What has been created, Reed sardonically observes, is a “moral economy” in which “a society in which 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources could be [regarded as] just, provided that roughly 12% of the 1% were black, 12% were Latino, 50% were women and whatever the appropriate proportions were LGBT people”.

    “Focusing on diversity means we miss the big picture. It’s class that shapes our lives” https://archive.ph/DryRG

    1. Yes the Adolph Reed quote is a good one. Captures the real meaning of the “equity” favoured by corporations, tech, media, and academics.

    2. Some question begging there. It is assumed that a society where 1% of the population controls 90% of the resources cannot be just. That needs to be proved, not assumed.

      Maybe we should be thankful that America is so fixated on race that they have no energy left to tear down the class structure.

      1. Sort of like Jerry’s post later today about the role of historians (prompt us to think, but not tell us what to think), I don’t want Marxists like Reed to tear down our social order (I admit he probably would if he could). But I do like that we have Marxists around to prompt me think about our social order and what could be better about it. I agree with you we need data (is it really 1% owns 90%?).

  8. Eff-it! Lets just all adopt mataurangi maori, and get it over with. Or the Tibetan book of the dead. Or Dianetics. Forget science, history, truth, reality, …. nasty systemic white racist old guy crap.

    I am becoming more thankful every day that I’m ancient and death is close by. Reading Hilary Mantel’s brilliant Wolf Hall trilogy (which I tried in 2012 and hated, but I was just a kid then), and in the context of the current US KendiAngelo-ism, with all of its hateful, shameful, baby-talk nonsense, I grieve for them who come who won’t be able to read literature and history, from everywhere, without the 3rd rate Chinese Cultural Revolution rhetoric of these times.

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