The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

In Defense of DEI in Science

We live in an environment in which the very concept of DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) programs is increasingly under attack. This May, Florida governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill to defund DEI programs at Florida’s public colleges. In the academic world, articles and statements by a small-but-vocal, number of our scientific colleagues have made the case that efforts surrounding DEI are incompatible with an objective and meritocratic system of scientific inquiry.1

Left unchallenged, these views can misrepresent the objectives of DEI efforts as well as the mainstream viewpoint and policies of the academic world. As members of the academic scientific community, we feel compelled to reiterate our strong support for DEI initiatives in higher education. Our view is that these efforts fundamentally align with scientific rigor and institutional policies and play an important role in ensuring that we recruit and retain the absolute best scholars and provide a supportive climate within which all of us can pursue world-class research and teaching.

We are motivated by the following two observations, which we regard as uncontroversial. First, while scientific talent and aptitude are equally distributed in the population—without regard to factors such as gender, race, income, and ability/disability—opportunity is not. Second, the scientific enterprise is—as is the case for all social constructs created and operated by people—subject to the biases and historical and cultural influences of its participants. It follows that it behooves stakeholders in the scientific enterprise to recognize and try to correct for these biases in evaluation, recruitment, and promotion. Compelling arguments can be made for the moral imperatives for these efforts, but a strong, pragmatic argument can also be made that identifying, recruiting, retaining, and nurturing the top talent the nation has to offer is simply in the best interests of academic institutions and the scientific enterprise at large.

Charges have been made that efforts to correct for these biases at the level of hiring, promotion, and funding undermines the scientific enterprise and constitutes an “attack on merit-based science.”1 Yet the concept of a pure meritocracy is a fiction. It is the human participants who together determine what constitutes merit and which ideas and achievements are worthy of promotion and accolades. Superficial merit-based metrics often fail to provide a full picture of the true potential of a candidate.

Scientific inquiry is, at its best, a search for objective truths by skeptical inquiry rooted in the scientific method, and the results of that inquiry should not depend on the person pursuing the science. A scientific environment that does not attempt to correct for historical biases and disenfranchisement due to, for example, gender, race, and income results in a representation among those selected to pursue scientific inquiry that can differ markedly from the broader population.2 This results in large cohorts of “missing scientists” who were selected out by a biased system.

The bias obviously hurts those scientists, but it also hurts the entire scientific enterprise since the system fails to promote the best and brightest scholars and attract and retain top students and trainees who will define science in the coming decades. There is a deep literature showing that diverse teams lead to improved team objectivity, innovation, and productivity.3,4 The insights, values, and cultural perspectives brought to the table by participants with different backgrounds can themselves also be particularly important in scientific inquiry involving a social component—it is surely reasonable to expect, for example, that clinical research into vaccine hesitancy among communities of color may benefit from the presence of researchers in the scientific establishment who are themselves people of color. Indeed, the presence of diverse individuals within the scientific enterprise with the agency to define their own research agendas can enrich the range of research questions that the scientific community collectively prioritizes and deems worthy of pursuit.2

Devising mechanisms to recognize individuals for scientific talent and achievement in the face of biases and inequalities of opportunity is not necessarily easy. No policy is perfect—interventions will have inefficiencies, costs, and unintended consequences and will rarely engender universal agreement. Reasonable people can disagree on the details and implementation of these efforts, but the observation that the makeup of the scientific enterprise is a gross distortion of the demographic makeup of the US population is a strong indicator that business as usual is not working.

The present disquisition expresses our viewpoint as individual faculty members at the University of Chicago, but we observe that this perspective is consistent with a formal statement released by the president and provost that elegantly articulates a longstanding institutional commitment to rigorous inquiry, free expression, and diversity in the campus community and positions these goals as mutually enhancing.5 The DEI Planning Toolkit developed by the University of Chicago Office of the Provost represents one mechanism by which the institution provides resources and guidance to promote diversity within the faculty, staff, and student body and foster an inclusive environment where diverse ideas are welcomed and scholars can thrive.6 Critics have attempted to cast these policies as somehow ideological, political, discriminatory, patronizing, or inconsistent with scientific objectivity. On the contrary, these policies are uncontroversial and effective tools that represent standard practices that are widely implemented in academia and industry to identify and support top talent.

One may ask whether these interventions are too late in the talent pipeline and that top candidates are simply not present in the pool of students, staff, or faculty interested in obtaining employment at institutions of higher learning. There are certainly losses in talent at every step of the educational pipeline, and fully engaging this issue in the academy will require collaborative efforts of educators and policy makers all the way from kindergarten to tenure. However, it is disingenuous to assert that the pipelines at the undergraduate, graduate, and faculty levels are empty of diverse talent, and failing to identify and promote the top talent where one has the agency and ability to do so is a dereliction of our responsibilities.

Recruitment activities are really an attempt to predict the future—to recruit the person who will be the most successful, innovative, and impactful in driving forward our scientific enterprise. In pursuit of top performing candidates, evaluation decisions should be designed to identify the strongest, most determined, smartest, and most creative individuals in the pool and be calibrated, to the degree possible, to account for the unique circumstances of each candidate and any potential biases in the system. One can only truly evaluate the potential of a candidate by viewing their past achievements within the context of the environment in which they were made. It follows that evaluation metrics must correct for factors that do not reflect the true talent, potential, and promise of the individual and do so within the context of a holistic evaluation that is completely compatible with a rigorous evaluation of the candidate’s technical capabilities and intellectual prowess and promise.

It is our hope that this editorial may serve to articulate to the scientific community of students, scholars, and professionals that we as science and engineering faculty at the University of Chicago are committed to promoting and supporting a diverse community and that DEI principles and activities are inherently aligned with scientific rigor and the free pursuit of knowledge.

Andrew L. Ferguson, Associate Professor, Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, UChicago

Benoît Roux, Professor, Department of Chemistry, UChicago

John S. Anderson, Associate Professor, Department of Chemistry, UChicago

Adam T. Hammond, Senior Lecturer, Graduate Program in Biophysical Sciences, UChicago

Graham J. Slater, Associate Professor, Department of the Geophysical Sciences, UChicago

Henry Hoffmann, Associate Professor, Department of Computer Science, UChicago

Aaron P. Esser-Kahn, Professor, Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, UChicago

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  • D

    DNB / Dec 11, 2023 at 9:33 pm

    These are all good points, in principle. Here is how it works in practice. Departments decide who to recommend for hiring (there may be some variation from one university to the next). The administration decides whether or not to make an attractive offer. Both sides have a veto on hiring. The administration has two tranches of money to use in hiring, one tranche for hiring people who are members of a group that is underrepresented, the second tranche for other people. It is made very clear by the administration to Departments that there is ample money in the first tranche, and that there may be a shortage of funds in the second. For example, there is only money to hire one person this year, however there may be money for a second hire but only if that applicant is from an underrepresented group. Or, less common, there is only money to hire a person this year if that person is from an underrepresented group. Key communications are done orally, or with the use of euphemism. The second example is clearly illegal, though it does occur. The first example is also illegal, because the invisible second job ad is only open to a subset of applicants on the basis of the applicants’ protected characteristics.

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  • A

    ANM / Nov 11, 2023 at 3:39 pm

    Thank you for your virtue signaling and bad writing!

    Reply
  • E

    EAF / Oct 13, 2023 at 10:12 pm

    There is a more obvious solution to past discrimination. Instead of present discrimination against those groups that are currently overrepresented, all of these old white evidently racist professors should be made to retire so that the profession can be remade along demographically proportional lines on the basis of merit — without any discrimination at all. Instead of all this convoluted justification, please just leave.

    But they won’t. They’re not willing to take a hit for equity. Instead they would impose that burden on the next generation.

    Reply