Last week, Nature — one of the most prominent and prestigious journals in science — ran an insane editorial calling for “diversity” in science. Why, you might ask, does the skin color or sexual orientation of scientists have anything to do with scientific discovery? It doesn’t. But we know it’s good for scientists to be diverse because SHUT UP, YOU BIGOT.
Their editorial begins with a ringing call for more scientists from more backgrounds:
Lab groups, departments, universities and national funders should encourage participation in science from as many sectors of the population as possible. It’s the right thing to do — both morally and to help build a sustainable future for research that truly represents society.
All of this is just fine — the more scientists, the merrier! But then the editorial begins to get weird:
A more representative workforce is more likely to pursue questions and problems that go beyond the narrow slice of humanity that much of science (biomedical science in particular) is currently set up to serve. Widening the focus is essential if publicly funded research is to protect and preserve its mandate to work to improve society. For example, a high proportion of the research that comes out of the Western world uses tissue and blood from white individuals to screen drugs and therapies for a diverse population. Yet it is well known that people from different ethnic groups can have different susceptibility to some diseases.
This is, plainly put, idiotic. How do we know that people from various ethnic groups have different susceptibilities to disease? Thanks to science emanating largely from white, male scientists. Which is fine, because who the hell cares what your doctor looks like when he’s treating you, or what your researcher looks like when he's trying to determine your susceptibility to disease?
It’s also worthwhile noting here that the complaint Nature seems to be making is that we ought to use more diverse tissue to screen drugs and therapies. That’s right — but that has nearly nothing to do with the identities of the scientists themselves. This argument is somewhat like stating that we ought to be using more dogs rather than lab rats to test various drugs, and therefore we need more puppy scientists.
But Nature is just getting started:
What does it take to make an institution more diverse? To boost recruitment and participation in science among some under-represented groups is difficult. Statistics from the US National Science Foundation show that the representation of minority ethnic groups in the sciences would need to more than double to match the groups’ overall share of the US population.
How much of that disparity is due to discrimination, how much of it is due to social background, and how much of it is due to choice? Why, that’s just the sort of question you might expect Nature to ask, given that it is a journal of science! But nope. No such question is asked. Instead, we are to assume that it is merely sociological barriers that create disparities. To do otherwise would be intolerant, you see.
So, what does Nature recommend?
As we highlight in a Careers piece this week, there are steps that groups, departments and institutions can take to try to draw from a broader pool of talent. Some of these demand effort to reach out to under-represented communities, to encourage teenagers who might otherwise not consider science as an option. Even the wording of job advertisements can put people off — candidates from some backgrounds might be less likely to consider themselves "outstanding" or "excellent", and so might not even apply. Yet diversity efforts should not stop when people are through the door. To retain is as important as to recruit — mentoring and support is essential for all young scientists, and especially so for those who have been marginalized by academic culture.
Or, alternatively, we could use objective measures of quality — you know, like a scientist would — in order to recruit the best scientists. We could use actual mathematical models and measuring tools.
But that might not result in the sort of identity diversity Nature likes.
According to Nature, we should use a sort of affirmative action recruitment effort because to do so is both “moral and ethical” (notably unscientific terms), and can help business’ bottom line. How so? Well, Nature reports that a McKinsey report champions a “positive link between a firm’s financial performance and its diversity — which it defines in terms of the proportion of women and the ethnic and cultural composition of the leadership of large companies. Could something similar be true in science?”
There is no evidence whatsoever that racial diversity contributes to scientific investigation and discovery. But that’s okay. Nature says so. After all, “The lack of diversity in science is everyone’s problem. Everyone has a responsibility to look around them, to see the problem for what it is, and to act — not just to assume it is someone else’s job to fix it.”
Or, alternatively, Nature could be scientific, and investigate the actual causes of ethnic disparity in the sciences. Nature could even make a scientific case why diversity in science matters. But they won’t bother with any of that. Better to print identity politics slogans in a leading science journal than actually bother with science.