I just served on an National Science Foundation panel, in which 'broadening the participation of underrepresented groups' is a priority when choosing which proposals to fund, then came back to Europe where the German Bundesrat passed a measure requiring 40% of executive boards to be female. This made me think further about the general principle of affirmative action, and especially in science.
NSF gives extra points to proposals in which PIs make special efforts to make campus visits and presentations at institutions that serve underrepresented groups, mentor early-career scientists and engineers from underrepresented groups, scientists who participate in conferences, workshops and field activities where diversity is a priority etc.
I think some aspects of affirmative action, and especially the Bundesrat decision, serve neither the underrepresented groups or anyone else. Quotas automatically decrease quality (because selection is not purely on achievement and suitability), discriminate against majority groups and lead to failure and inferiority complexes for those favored. Hence, I agree with the conservative Supreme Court Gratz v Bollinger decision which barred quotas and disagree with Grutter v Bollinger that allowed them in a different form. Further, affirmative action only makes sense to me if discrimination on the basis of nationality is removed. Right now, you can be a ethnic minority female disabled Romanian or Thai working in the U.S. but unless you are a U.S. citizen you cannot be an affirmative action beneficiary.
As for diversity, in science in the U.S. (not France or Germany) this happens naturally, and our lab has always been wonderfully diverse, with, for example, sometimes simultaneously members from more than 15 different countries, but that wasn't intentional, it just happened, and unfortunately it's not what myopically qualifies as diverse for the U.S. Government.
Nevertheless, especially in the U.S., there is enormous untapped talent in the economically disadvantaged population. Our efforts should go into encouraging economically disadvantaged kids and educating their parents, well before university, and it shouldn't matter what nationality, ethnicity or gender they are: white, black, Hispanic, Slovakian, Asian, disabled, French, American. Also, of course, those disadvantaged kids who prove themselves to be hard-working and talented need to have an opportunity to pursue higher education equal to their richer peers. Equal opportunity. No doors closed. Yes, all need to be given "a shot" but none propelled through on a soft cushion.
Notwithstanding, given the hypothetical situation where I must choose between two Ph.D. candidates with exactly the same grades: one rich and the other poor, I will choose the poor kid every time. Not through pity or positive discrimination or for championing underrepresented groups, but simply because I'm likely to get more bang for my buck from a kid who has fought their way out of the projects.
Now, let's get down to organizing those East Knoxville high school lectures...