Soon after World War II, Wernher von Braun, a German engineer who played a leading role in developing the V-2 rocket, was covertly moved to the United States. Though he had officially been a Nazi, von Braun was an exceptionally gifted aerospace engineer. A decade and a half later, when U.S. officials feared that they were falling behind scientifically after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, von Braun became director of NASA’s new Marshall Space Flight Center. One could criticize the decision to overlook von Braun’s odious past, but in that era, such criticisms were moot. Competence was the reigning currency.
Today, our scientific institutions are going in the opposite direction. Whether a scientist is competent is often overlooked. Instead, his work’s political palatability determines whether he is hired, funded, promoted, or granted tenure.
I started working on a Ph.D. three years ago. When I began graduate school, I was aware of the charges about political homogeneity and performative activism on campuses but thought that these were usually exaggerated. Having discovered the satisfaction of tutoring students in mathematical and technical subjects as an undergraduate, I wanted to make a career out of helping people acquire new competencies. I believed this to be one of the primary functions of institutions of higher education. But in the three years since beginning graduate studies, I have changed my mind about the politicization of academic life. Such terms as “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion,” I have come to see, are being used not only as administrative shibboleths but also in descriptions of actual scientific work—a troubling development, as the language can shield shoddy ideas. “Equity-centered” research can deflect scrutiny through the tacit insinuation that anyone who finds fault with it must be doing so out of hostility toward equity itself. It is difficult, too, to get clear definitions of “diversity,” “inclusion,” and “equity,” even from those using them in the titles of their own research projects.
Data bear out my experience. While helping to develop an unrelated grant application, I browsed through the archive of abstracts of research projects funded by the National Science Foundation—a government agency that provides about $8 billion in annual monies. NSF funding goes largely to basic scientific research conducted at U.S. colleges and universities. The agency evaluates grant proposals on two criteria: intellectual merit and broader impacts. The broader-impacts criterion requires that applicants describe how their work will advance desired social outcomes. Grant application guidelines don’t explicitly define what these broader impacts should be, but my own research provides some insight into how this criterion is being interpreted.
I decided to do some statistical and linguistic analysis to determine how much more frequent the use of “diversity,” “equity,” “inclusion,” and similar terms were becoming. My analysis, which I published for the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology, shows a precipitous increase in the use of words related to identity politics. In 1990, only 3 percent of award abstracts contained one of the following terms: “equity,” “diversity,” “inclusion,” “gender,” “marginalize,” “underrepresented,” or “disparity.” As of 2020, 30 percent of all award abstracts had at least one of these terms. The NSF directorate in which abstracts most frequently contained one of these terms was Education & Human Resources (54 percent in 2020, up from 4 percent in 1990).
My analysis showed a general stagnation in the linguistic diversity of award abstracts over time. While the number of awards granted—and the amount of money given out—by the NSF has consistently grown since 1990, the degree of novelty in the award abstracts has remained flat or fallen across the various NSF directorates. All that talk of “diversity,” in other words, has been accompanied by diminishment of the actual diversity of ideas within these grant applications. Scientists dutifully paying lip service to fashionable progressive causes are more likely to be funded, disadvantaging those who go against the current consensus. Such personalities, however, are crucial to the generation of novel ideas. The more the NSF pays attention to political or temperamental litmus tests, the less it pays to other, more vital, criteria—namely, the quality of the proposed work and the competence of the investigators. And the more that scientific institutions are viewed as conduits for promulgating ideology, the less capable they will be of swaying public opinion on important issues.
The infusion of fashionable political platitudes into scientific research is bound to have a deleterious effect on both the quality of science and the public trust in scientific institutions. The growing view of science as a vehicle for activism detracts from its vital role: acting as a dispassionate referee to adjudicate the validity of empirical claims.