Focusing on Science at the Office of Science and Technology Policy
The duo replacing Eric Lander diminishes science at the White House
In a move that bodes poorly for science, President Biden replaced his science adviser, renowned scientist Eric Lander, who resigned Feb. 7, with two individuals whose recent focus has been on a peripheral scientific distraction. One of the advisers isn’t a scientist. She is a sociologist whose work has focused on studying racism in science and medicine. The other is an established scientist and administrator whose focus recently has been to steer the National Institutes of Health based on arguments about systemic racism.
One may wonder how significant the presidential science adviser is in any case. The answer depends of course on which president and which administration one is discussing. A colleague of mine, who happened to have been a former Presidential Science Advisor, once told me a lot depends upon how soon a science adviser is appointed and where in the bureaucratic infrastructure of the executive branch they sit, both literally and metaphorically. It also depends on what issues the science adviser and the president choose to focus on.
President Biden made the science adviser a Cabinet position, for the first time, and expressed a desire to “follow the science” in public policy decision-making. At the time his administration has been focused on virtue signaling associated with race and gender. There are always a lot of issues competing for political attention, and these two policy areas are not incompatible. But the question remains which will take on a greater significance when it comes to steering and promoting science and technology to address the urgent scientific and technical challenges that will affect the health, welfare and security of the nation in the 21st century. More generally, one can question the urgency of addressing claims of racism and sexism in science that may have little current empirical support over other potentially more pressing issues.
The scientific enterprise may have once been institutionally racist and sexist, but it was also antisemitic. It isn’t any of the three anymore. On the contrary, extensive and detailed measures have been in place in academia for over 30 years that focus on ensuring diversity. As anyone who has been involved on hiring committees at universities since at least the 1980s knows, there is strong pressure for search committees to seek out female and minority candidates, and universities are willing to make special accommodations to successfully recruit them. When I was chair of the CWRU Physics Department in the early 1990s, for example. every appointment had to be accompanied by a letter outlining the applicant pool and reasons for selection if the successful candidate was not female.
If race and gender are affecting science at all today, it is largely due to renewed demands that identity should play a key role in the consideration of research and teaching appointments.
Many advancement programs and scholarships for undergraduate and graduate students at higher education institutions in this country and others are restricted by race or gender. Consider for example, Caltech’s “Future of Physics” Program, a two-day conference that brought undergraduates to campus to learn about cutting edge science and about applying to graduate school. It was only open to women*. The asterisk was in the application materials and referred to the following: “*We use a fluid definition of “woman” that is inclusive of trans and genderqueer women, femmes, and gender non-confirming/non-binary students.” It would have been simpler say that the program was not open to males or those defining as males. This conference was then followed by a “Futures Initiative,” this time open to only people of color, accompanied by the a detailed specific list of what a “student of color” was. Asians, for example, did not make the cut. Programs like this are now the norm, rather than the exception.
In Canada, which unlike the US doesn’t specifically forbid reverse discrimination in hiring on the basis of gender or race, there are numerous academic positions advertised in science at major universities, like Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, a respected research university. Dalhousie recently advertised a position for an assistant professor of experimental chemistry that was explicitly not open to white males.
Scientific issues will have an effect on almost all of the important policy initiatives in the next century, including energy, the environment, health, economic productivity and national security. We need to focus on the real scientific and technological issues that will aid progress in addressing these issues, and support programs that will produce important new scientific results, while also advancing quality science education. Addressing race and gender equity may be a laudable goal, which has occupied sociologist Alondra Nelson—who will serve as interim director the Office of Science and Technology Policy—but given diversity’s already prominent role in governing the academic and technological research enterprise, focusing on it over other issues seems frankly unnecessary at best, and distracting at worst. A recent interview with Science Magazine doesn’t bode well.
Francis Collins, the interim science adviser, is both an accomplished scientist and administrator. I know him well and he is a guy who it is impossible not to like. I am sure he would be a lovely boss. Nevertheless, he too has recently had a strong focus on race and gender. More recently he has stated that the institution he led, the National Institutes of Health, was systemically racist. I always find it difficult to understand how someone can make such a claim and, if they really believe it, not offer one’s resignation at the same time.
Also, while head of the NIH he spearheaded introducing advancing diversity training into research funding, and most recently stated he wouldn’t be a part of any panel discussion that was all male.
The recent restriction on all male panels is particularly silly virtue signaling. First, it tokenizes women and minorities. Secondly, in some areas of study, at some times, getting the best people on a panel who are also available to discuss an important issue, may mean that only male panelists may be involved. It demeans these issues to suggest that they are not worth discussing unless a woman can be found to discuss it. We face immediate challenges in areas including climate change, energy storage, genetic engineering, quantum computing, to name a few. Our science teams should have the best scientists for the job with no regard to race or gender.
Neal Lane, who was science adviser to President Clinton, has rightly said that this division into presidential science adviser and separate head of OSTP is not workable in the long term. For the latter to play an important role, that person should occupy both positions. Moreover, neither of these interim appointees will serve on Biden’s Cabinet, which diminishes the impact of both roles and puts science one again on a back burner.
Let’s hope that Biden’s ultimate permanent appointment is a scientist who is given a powerful voice within the administration as a Cabinet member, and who has the experience and dedication to have a laser focus on the important issues in science and technology, not focusing on what seem like largely non-existent problems that don’t do much to engender real scientific progress.
I tend to lean on my education when discussing these topics (I have a Master of Sociology degree), but I’m also a minority with a lived experience on top of said education, so these topics always interest me. The issues of systemic racism and sexism - which are very real and long embedded in our institutions and history - are not uniform across all areas in life. The folly in believing that they are often leads to misplaced focus and wasting valuable resources on solutions, sometimes in search of a problem, with little ROI.
As a progressive, my worry is that the masses will tire of this over saturation of virtue signaling and stop supporting diversity and equity initiatives, which really are needed in many areas of life
Actually, let's hope the science community forms an effective board on their own. Guys with newly found celebrity maybe, using their exposure to press home all the issues the general public seem to be misled on or have little interest in. Obviously that's what you all do separately, but a coalition that meets every so often to discuss (live on youtubeland) these issues, should have the same effect on a much larger scale. Because I'll tell ya, I've always been interested and not alone, but it's these past 5 or 6 years of your guys' fame rising to the point where at least millions more Americans know what the standard model of the universe is. A decade ago they would have been waiting for you to bust out a diorama, me included...