Science and Politics: Affirmative Action in the Lab

Women in science: Should government-funded labs make a point of hiring an equal number of men and women?
Women in science: Should government-funded labs make a point of hiring an equal number of men and women?Courtesy NIOSH—Nat’l Inst. For Occupational Safety & Health

(With the Republican National Convention literally across the street, the Science Museum of Minnesota will be closed starting Friday, August 29. But Science Buzz marches on! To honor our convention guests, I’ll be posting entries focusing on issues where science and politics overlap. Hopefully this will spur some discussion. Or at least tick some people off. Previous entry here.)

Affirmative action. Another nice, safe topic that we have talked about before, though in a different context.

In 1972, Congress passed an education bill which included, among its amendments, the following language:

"No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

Certainly sounds fair. But this amendment, known as “Title IX,” has caused its share of headaches. The law states that men and women should have equal opportunity in educational activities. But “opportunity” is often hard to measure. If few women partake in a given activity, is it because of discrimination? Because of lack of interest? Or, in the case of athletics, because of physical limitations?

Hard to say sometimes. So instead, the courts look at outcomes. If significantly more men than women are participating in a activity, the courts tell the schools they need to get the numbers in line. Usually this means trying to increase women’s participation. Too often, however, it has meant cutting support for men – a surreal Harrison Bergeron result if ever there was one.

This same “logic” is now to be applied to academic science departments. Under pressure from Congress, several federal science agencies are now looking for discrimination in college science departments. And, since motive is hard to prove, there are fears that courts will again fall back to looking solely at results, and force schools to hire equal numbers of male and female scientists, regardless of their qualifications. Which is fairly antithetical to the pure meritocracy science is supposed to be.

No one wants discrimination. But it would be a national tragedy if the pursuit of political correctness ended up hindering American science, just as science has become more important than at any moment in human history.

New York Times reporter John Tierney has reviewed the National Academy of Science’s report on discrimination, and has found very little evidence of bias. And, as we discussed earlier, many women do not pursue math careers, not because of discrimination, but simply because of individual choice.

This appears to be a solution in search of a problem.

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