Monday, October 1, 2012

Why I'm Against Affirmative Action

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...


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  2. I too am against affirmative action in the unimaginative form of quotas. However from a European perspective there is a clear problem with under-representation of women in physical science and engineering: statistics don't lie. There may also be a problem with under representation of other groups, but I find this less easy to quantify. If you don't consider it important to keep women who are trained and able working, then the argument stops here. (But I don't think you've changed that much). The reasons for losing women from the work force have been debated and discussed ad nauseum, and are largely understood. They are related to mobility and the idea, in Europe at least, that scientists don't need permanent jobs. But debate and "sympathy" doesn't lead to any effective change in the status quo; the issues are structural and those with the power to change things do not have the will. The recruitment committee is always going to "appoint the candidate thought best suited to the post" whatever their criteria might be, whatever the collateral damage might be, and regardless of the fact that they do sometimes get it wrong. Occasionally choosing the candidate thought to be in the position to do the best job means discriminating against women nearing the end of their child-bearing age window, or spouses of current employees. A recruiter actually admitted this to me. This statement is factual, if not at all PC and thankfully not systematic. However, being in the situation of watching successive generations of women struggle to overcome the part-time to permanent position hurdle with limited options to relocate, I am increasingly convinced that some kind of action is required. Once out of the work force, the current system means that you're out of the work force for ever. My latest random idea is some kind of "points system" which would look at say number of years experience, marital situation, children etc. It makes sense to value people with experience, and to try to keep families together. A candidate much preferred to another would be appointed. The "points" would discriminate between similarly qualified candidates. And of course I'd use the points for all candidates, not just women. Cue the howls of objection

    p.s. season's not going too well so far despite the Arsenal game

  3. Very good points there! Concerning scientists who have PhDs but have left the workforce for child bearing etc, it does seem a waste to me that this expertise and talent is not being used. Here in the USA we are hearing from the politicians that, despite an overall increase in unemployment since the recession, there are not enough highly-qualified people in the workforce. So one would have thought that the outlook for PhDs who have been out of the loop for a while should be bright.

    Concerning NCFC: should've had 3 points against Aston Villa!

  4. In fact I wasn't commenting about those that have left the work force (though that is an even more contentious issue), but about keeping women in the work force when they are not geographically mobile. The outlook for PhDs who have been out of the loop for a while is zero. No recruitment panel even considers someone for a research based position without current research (current = less than 12 months old). And finding a professional position for unemployed scientists in the >40 yr old bracket outside science - when they do not have the relevant experience and the standard career path - is also zero in my view (with the possible exception of secondary school teaching in some countries).

  5. Hi,

    "Quotas automatically decrease quality (because selection is not purely on achievement and suitability), " ouch ouch ouch. The problem is that selection is never (ok rarely) made purely on achievement and suitability, however much you may honestly believe it is. What do you make of this?

    and do you dare take the test?