Identity Politics Comes to STEM

In January, PRI had the pleasure of hosting Manhattan Institute fellow Heather Mac Donald at a luncheon in Southern California to discuss her new book The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine our Culture.  One of the most disturbing points during her talk was when she discussed how identity politics has now infiltrated engineering, health care, and the sciences.

You would think that the STEM fields, which study our natural and physical environments, would be immune to “diversity delusion.”  Poetry, music, and art may be open to interpretation and taste, but 2 + 2 will always equal 4.  And those who can figure out the right answers to the toughest calculus and physics problems will always earn spots in those fields.

But the reality is that few women and some minority groups choose to pursue STEM careers.  Here in the US, women earn just 35 percent of Bachelor’s degrees awarded in the STEM fields, despite the fact that more women than men graduate from college each year.

There are many theories for why this is the case, including the poor performance in math of public school students in general, and students from low-income areas, in particular. While corporate America very much values a diverse workforce, the big defense contractors, tech, and biotech firms have struggled for decades to hire female and minority scientists and engineers.  But throughout, there’s always been the assumption that all those who are hired for such positions are well qualified.

That’s not necessarily the case today.  The pressure to increase the representation of females and minorities from the federal government, university administrators, and even scientific societies is changing how science is taught and how science qualifications are evaluated.

In her book, Mac Donald cites a UCLA scientist: “All across the country the big question now in STEM is how can we promote more women and minorities by ‘changing’ (i.e. lowering), the requirements we had previously set for graduate level study.”  Mathematical problem-solving is now being deemphasized in favor of more qualitative group projects, writes Mac Donald.

Identity politics is now altering the standards of scientific competence. Entry requirements for grad schools are being revised downward says Mac Donald.  The American Astronomical Society, for instance, recommended that PhD programs in astronomy eliminate the GRE exam in physics, since it has a disparate impact on females and underrepresented minorities.

In medical schools, racial preferences are often justified on the basis that minorities want doctors who “look like them.” But sick people of all stripes would agree with Mac Donald: “Patients with serious illnesses want the same as everyone else: subject mastery.”

If we want to promote more women and minorities in STEM fields, then our focus should be improving math and science education in our public schools, and ensuring that every student is prepared to meet the demands of the workforce – not lowering academic standards.

Driven by meritocracy, China’s academic institutions are gaining on the United States in science and technology.  We should all take note of Heather Mac Donald’s warning: “Identity politics in American science is a political self-indulgence that we cannot afford.”

Rowena Itchon is senior vice president of the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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