July 4th, 2020


Even amid a pandemic, federal science agencies continue to fund anti-scientific diversity initiatives

Heather Mac Donald

By Heather Mac Donald City Journal

Published May 11, 2020

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are not taking the coronavirus epidemic seriously, to judge from their funding priorities. On April 20, those two agencies announced the availability of grants to increase the "diversity" of biomedical research labs.

Academic virologists working on respiratory failure, say, could receive hundreds of thousands more taxpayer dollars if they could find a "diverse" student to add to the project. No scientific justification for the new diversity hire is needed; indeed, high school students are eligible, despite the virtual certainty that they will contribute nothing of value.

To the contrary, such new hires will be a drag on any medical advance, since the scientists must pledge to mentor the students, taking time and attention away from their scientific research. Those mentees will be chosen not because of their science skills — they need present none — but because of their group's underrepresentation in STEM.

The premier federal funders of biomedical research, in other words, apparently believe that a pandemic is the perfect moment to focus further on identity politics. If diversity trumps scientific merit in biomedical research, including in immunology and virology, then those research efforts cannot be particularly important, despite the experts' economy-crushing shutdown mandates.

The CDC, NIH, and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have been color- and sex-coding their research grants for years, on the grounds that "scientific innovation," in the words of the NIH, requires scientists from "diverse backgrounds and life experiences."

But the newly announced "Research Supplements to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research" exponentially boost those agencies' social-justice agenda. Besides the usual preferences for women, blacks, and Hispanics, the following categories now also qualify for diversity funding: being or having been homeless; being or having been in foster care; having been eligible for free school lunches; having no parents with a bachelor's degree; and having received WIC payments (a food program for low-income mothers) as a child or mother.

The claim that being black or female increases one's chances of achieving a scientific breakthrough was always fanciful, but the idea that having been homeless or having had a mother on welfare is in any way relevant to genome sequencing or cancer treatment is preposterous. The NIH and CDC assert that the scientific enterprise requires a wide range of "viewpoints."

Different minds may in fact approach knotty problems differently. But having been in foster care is simply too remote from the challenge of developing a vaccine to block SARS-CoV-2 to be a valid substitute for scientific expertise.

The CDC may have struggled with coronavirus testing early on, but it and the NIH are fully up to speed when it comes to academic grievance studies. The latest "Research Supplements to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research" place great stock in "intersectionality." STEM departments hoping for a research supplement will increase their chances by hiring females who are also an underrepresented minority, disabled, or from a "disadvantaged background." Singly, these categories have nothing to do with scientific merit; they gain no additional relevance from having been aggregated.

The NSF, another federal funder of basic biomedical research, has also increased its identity-based spending during the pandemic. It recently announced that it would be pouring another $29 million of taxpayer dollars into its ADVANCE program. ADVANCE's premise is that STEM departments are rife with implicit bias against competitively qualified females and underrepresented minorities. Achieving gender and racial "equity" in STEM requires "organizational change," which grantees can pursue via four supposedly distinct "tracks:" "Institutional Transformation," "Adaptation," "Partnership," and "Catalyst." (In fact, these largely indistinguishable "tracks" simply represent bureaucratic rhetorical churn.) Successful applications, whether in molecular bioscience or mechanical engineering, will apply "intersectional approaches" to institutional change, recognizing that "gender, race, and ethnicity do not exist in isolation from each other and from other categories of social identity."

Science, of course, is not the only arena where identity politics has recently surged. The New York City health department requires that its contact tracers understand "institutional and structural racism" and have a "demonstrated commitment" to victims of such racism, i.e., "people of color, LGBTQ+ people, immigrants, [and] justice involved persons [translation: criminals]." How such "knowledge" is supposed to affect the collection of health and contact data is unclear. The higher coronavirus death rate for blacks in some cities has been attributed to biased doctors and nurses, as well as to systemic societal injustice. Acknowledging behaviorally driven health disparities is taboo. Keeping essential workers on the job is said to be racist; reopening businesses to nonessential workers is also racist.

But the most audacious play for top-dog victim status comes from feminists. Politico magazine denounces "Covid's War on Women." It may seem to be "cause for celebration" that more men than women are dying, Politico acknowledges. If there were any doubt about the cultural elite's contempt for masculinity, these glad tidings of joy should dispel it. (We will not pause to consider the effect of substituting "blacks" for "men" and "whites" for "women.") Nevertheless, Politico warns, despite the seeming good news, the pandemic has been "worse for girls and women" than for men, since those non-dead women are still around to bear more "workplace risk."

MSNBC anchor Andrea Mitchell took up the same theme on April 20. "Women are being hit particularly hard by the coronavirus," Mitchell lamented. As the majority of service workers, women are now out of work and having to carry the burden of housework, Mitchell said. On the other hand, women workers are being exposed to the virus "in a way that's disproportionate," according to Cecille Richards, founder of the women's political-action committee Supermajority and former head of Planned Parenthood. In other words, keeping women on the job reflects sexism; laying them off also reflects sexism.

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It was not so long ago that New York governor Andrew Cuomo was announcing that saving just one life justifies any expenditure and any economic destruction that government might impose. Now we hear that the male body count is less important than the fact that female service workers are being exposed to the virus, even if that exposure carries a much lower risk of death. In fact, the sex disparities in coronavirus deaths often dwarf those racial disparities that we have been told are so concerning. In New York City, the coronavirus death rate for males was 70 percent higher than for females as of April 30: 190.5 per 100,000 of population for males, versus 112 per 100,000 of population for females. Yet New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams asserted in early April that the city's official responses to the virus had "clearly" discriminated against blacks, in light of the fact that blacks make up 23 percent of the city's population, but were 27.5 percent of virus fatalities where the race of the deceased was recorded.

We are accustomed to such demagoguery from politicians. But one might expect a little more rationality from our scientific leaders. Evidence-based thinking is not how you get ahead in academia or government, however. NIH director Francis Collins announced last June that he would boycott any academic conference or panel in the biomedical field where white males predominated. These male-dominated abominations are known as "manels." A manel is evidence of the bias that prevents "women and other groups underrepresented in science from achieving their rightful place in scientific leadership," Collins said. The NIH director apparently is as innumerate as the most analytically challenged academic vice chancellor for equity, diversity, and inclusion. Given the disparities in math and science skills, a lack of race proportionality (and, to a lesser extent, gender proportionality) in STEM is inevitable, absent radically lowered standards.

In 2017, 53 percent of all black eighth-graders failed to demonstrate basic competence in math, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. By contrast, 20 percent of white eighth-graders and 12 percent of Asian eighth-graders were nonproficient in math skills.

Only 2 percent of black eighth-graders had advanced math skills, compared with 13 percent of white eighth-graders and 32 percent of Asian eighth-graders. These disparities do not close in high school or college. In light of this skills gap, Collins's explanation for the lack of proportional representation among biomedical scientists as a function of racism is irresponsible. A research lab racing to develop vaccines is not the place to try belatedly to close the academic achievement gap, even were such a goal within reach.

The skills divergence is not as great between males and females, but it is nevertheless significant, especially at the highest levels of math capacity, from which top-level researchers are drawn. Males outnumber females by a ratio of two to one on perfect to near-perfect scores on the math SAT (the College Board stopped reporting such fine-grained data several years ago). For math scores above 700, there were 157 boys in 2019 for every 100 girls. Females with high-end math skills tend to have strong verbal skills as well, unlike the average male math whiz. That double strength gives females a greater range of career choices. Many opt for more people-oriented work over a more solitary, ideas-based career in the hard sciences.

Hope in the coronavirus fight is now being placed in remdesivir, an anti-viral drug that appears to hasten the recovery of severely ill Covid-19 patients. Mark Denison of Vanderbilt University conducted the early research on other coronaviruses that led to remdesivir's development. He teamed up with pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences after learning about its drug portfolio at an academic conference; Denison's collaboration with Gilead would help bring remdesivir to market. Fortunately, that academic conference occurred before Francis Collins's diktat against manels. If the conference had shown the usual STEM sex-and-race skew, Collins would have recommended that it be boycotted and defunded. Remdesivir may have escaped a politicized end, but who knows what future discoveries will be stunted by the demand for sex-and-race proportionality in STEM?

The coming economic depression may deliver a body blow to the fount of race and gender victimology: America's bloated and politicized colleges. But identity politics has already worked its way into every American institution. The Trump administration has made no effort to eliminate the diversity obsession in federal science agencies.

Now would be the time to do so.

President Trump should order that scientific funding be granted on a purely meritocratic basis. Sex and race are irrelevant to scientific accomplishment. Not a single cent of taxpayer money should go toward promoting identity politics in STEM — or anywhere, for that matter.


Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, where this first appeared, and the author of the New York Times bestseller The War on Cops and her latest book, The Diversity Delusion.