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Diversity Over Discovery

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Diversity Over Discovery

Biden’s war on merit puts America’s scientific edge at risk. May 6, 2021
Politics and law
The Social Order

President Joe Biden has now taken the push for “diversity” in STEM to a new level. His candidate to head the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the largest funder of the physical sciences in the U.S., is a soil geologist at the University of California, Merced. She has no background in physics, the science of energy, or the energy sector. She has never held a position as a scientific administrator. The typical head of DOE’s Office of Science in the past has had managerial authority in the nation’s major physics labs and has been a physicist himself, Science reports. The new nominee’s only managerial experience consists of serving since 2020 as an interim associate dean of UC Merced’s graduate division.

Asmeret Asefaw Berhe is, however, a black female who has won “accolades for her work to promote diversity in science,” as Science puts it. Berhe would be the first black woman to head the $7 billion office, and that is reason enough, according to the diversity mantra, why she should oversee X-ray synchrotrons, the development of nuclear weapons, and ongoing research on nuclear fusion. Her nomination requires Senate confirmation; if Berhe will not commit to hiring and grantmaking on the basis of scientific expertise alone, irrespective of race and sex, senators should vote her appointment down.

As head of the Office of Science, Berhe would be asked to choose strategic directions for DOE-funded science. Should the agency try to expand understanding of fundamental particle physics or of the physics of the universe? How much attention should be given to solid-state lighting, semiconductors, or artificial intelligence? With regard to energy conservation and clean energy, should DOE pursue geothermal or biomass, tackle storage issues, or seek greater energy efficiency through insulation and refrigeration? Each day, the Office of Science turns out dozens of “one-pager” descriptions of projects and proposals. It is unlikely that a soil geologist (with an M.S. in political ecology) will have the knowledge to evaluate proposals for, say, advanced scientific computing research or nuclear physics, or make the policy judgments that those “one-pagers” require.

It is fitting that Berhe teaches at the University of California, Merced. UC Merced was created as a diversity campus, in the hope of minting more Hispanic graduates with a UC degree. No one advocating for this new institution, located in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley, made the case that California needed more university research capacity. Berhe herself benefited from UC’s obsessive diversity push, having received a President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship, a program for promoting “underrepresented minority” graduate students.

A physicist wonders if Berhe “can know merit when she sees it.” Preference beneficiaries “think that merit is a myth and hierarchies of achievement are arbitrary and based on power and oppression,” this professor observes, based on years of watching academic admissions and hiring. Berhe argues that the lack of race and sex diversity in STEM is due to exclusion, rather than to the absence of a proportional number of competitively qualified “diverse” candidates in the hiring pipeline. Her co-authored articles include: “Leaky Pipeline vs. Vicious Obstacle Course: metaphors for the persistent exclusion of minoritized scholars from STEM,” “A critical feminist approach to transforming workplace climate in the geosciences through community engagement and partnerships with societies,” and “Hostile climates are barriers to diversifying the geosciences.” She will undoubtedly further elevate the importance of race and sex as criteria for federal research awards.

Berhe’s Soil Biogeochemistry Lab at UC Merced strives, according to its website, to “create a dynamic, diverse, and equitable STEM community that represents the public.” Scientists do not mirror the public’s demographics, however, thanks to yawning academic skills gaps. Nor is it the mission of science to be representative of population groups; its sole mission is to advance knowledge. Berhe’s lab, however, is developing and testing “sexual harassment bystander intervention training programs . . . that incorporate experiences of diverse women,” as part of a National Science Foundation consortium. Her lab recommends readings on racism and offers tips on writing the “diversity, equity, and inclusion” statements that are increasingly required of academic science hires. Expect such statements, thinly disguised euphemisms for announcing oneself as “diverse,” to become mandatory for a DOE science job or grant.

The Biden administration’s war on merit is being waged at an unprecedented rate. The White House is not submitting its judicial nominees to the American Bar Association for evaluation because the ABA may not be sufficiently attuned to the benefits of judicial “diversity,” the administration has explained. The ABA has been on the diversity bandwagon for years, however, and has become a thoroughly woke institution. If the Biden team thinks that its “diverse” judicial nominees could not even pass ABA muster, then it must anticipate bending traditional notions of legal competence beyond all recognition. (Republican presidents since George W. Bush have refrained from seeking ABA evaluations in light of the group’s regularly demonstrated bias against originalist judges.)

The anti-meritocratic diversity push on the federal bench will undercut the caliber of our jurisprudence and, with it, the rule of law. But the subjection of scientific research to the requirement of race and sex parity threatens future human progress. Such parity can be achieved only by sacrificing intellectual standards. An electrical engineer at a prestigious California university compares Berhe’s nomination to “putting a newspaper delivery boy in charge of Google.” Theoretical physicist Alessandro Strumia warns that by choosing scientific leadership according to a political agenda, “science itself risks becoming another form of covert political activism.”

The national science agencies have already wasted millions of taxpayer dollars on identity politics. The Biden administration will multiply that waste at a time when China is relentlessly racing to surpass the United States at the frontiers of science.

Photo by Oliver Contreras-Pool/Getty Images

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