When they’re not praising the embargo system -- under which science journals provide journalists with advance copies of newsworthy articles, but set strict timelines on when that information can be shared -- science and medical journalists often bitterly complain that they are its prisoners. For example, Natalie Angier of The New York Times claims that the embargo system gives journal editors "a stranglehold on journalistic initiative." Embargoes do exert great influence over what gets covered and how, but the embargo system is hardly a tyranny of journals over journalists. Journalists are enthusiastic participants in the embargo system and act to keep it functioning. In short, if journalists are in a stranglehold, it is a self-inflicted stranglehold -- and one that does not serve the public interest.
It need not be this way. Journalists could do end runs around the embargo, if they wanted. "Any decent journalist knows what’s in Nature next week," says David Whitehouse, science editor for the BBC’s Web site. That point is exemplified by Robin McKie, science reporter for The London Observer. He writes for a paper that publishes only on Sundays; because of the embargo’s timing, journal articles seem like old news by the time his paper publishes. Consequently, McKie refuses embargoed access to journals but nevertheless has broken news of important embargoed studies such as the cloning of Dolly and the results of decoding of the human genetic sequence. Much of his reporting, he says, is based on talks given by researchers at open meetings.
What accounts for the embargo’s staying power? One factor, quite clearly, is the extraordinary deference that the scientific and medical establishments receive in society. Few other institutions are given the freedom of action in society that science and medicine have enjoyed. Science and medical journalists have not been immune to the immense gravitational forces exerted by science and medicine, and the embargo system is symptomatic of the deference that journalists pay to the scientific and medical establishment.
From the beginnings of modern science and medical reporting in the 1930s and 1940s, journalists were eager to prove their bona fides to scientists and medical researchers so that those researchers would cooperate with the journalists. Journalists emphasized that they sought to be accurate (as the researchers defined accuracy), and asked the researchers to provide advance copies of their papers to facilitate these efforts. Although the scientific and medical establishments at first were slow to respond, eventually researchers and officials saw the advantages of controlling the flow of news about science and medicine; together, journalists and the research establishment forged the social construction that is now known as the embargo system.
Supporters of the embargo say that the embargo promotes coverage of important scientific research. But these well-meaning proponents of the embargo system confuse what is good for the scientific and medical establishments with what is good for society. Similarly, journalists erroneously equate what is in their interest with what is in the public interest.
Undoubtedly, the scientific establishment benefits handsomely from the unending torrent of news coverage about research being published in scientific and medical journals. The pattern of news coverage signals to readers and viewers -- not to mention lawmakers, business leaders, and others -- that science and medicine are important. Whether the research being reported is “good news” (for example, drug X is an effective treatment for disease Y) or “bad news” (Z causes cancer), the scientific and medical establishments are always cast in a positive light, as the font of the new finding. Some think that breathless coverage of the latest research might even help steer some individuals toward careers in science or medicine.
But media coverage of research journals often amounts to little more than highbrow infotainment: What’s the latest theory about the extinction of the dinosaurs? What’s the newest thing found to cause cancer? Look at the cool photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope! These are the types of subjects that dominate embargo-controlled news reporting about science and medicine.
Journalists and their media organizations -- particularly those with daily deadlines, such as newspapers, network television, and Web sites -- also benefit from the embargo. The embargo supplies news on a dependable schedule keyed to the production constraints of news organizations: if it’s Thursday, it’s time for a newspaper article about some paper published in The New England Journal of Medicine. The embargo reduces the stress on journalists from having to rush a story into print or on the air, and it also reduces the possibility that the journalist will be scooped by a competitor. The news peg provided by the embargo (“In a paper published today in Science...”) also makes it easier for journalists to convince their editors to run certain research stories. This news peg supplies an appearance of sudden and urgent newsworthiness to a research paper that had been conceived, executed, written, reviewed, and rewritten over a period of months, if not years. By keying the news story to the event of journal publication, the embargo system capitalizes on the fact that science and medical journalists and their editors -- like other journalists -- rely heavily on timeliness as a criterion in defining what is news and what is not. In fact, science and medical journalists are fully aware of the artificiality of the embargo’s news peg, but rely on it as a way to get research news into print and on the air.
This is a long-standing problem in journalism about science and medicine. “To write a story saying that ‘X’ was discovered today is a fiction,” Howard Simons, then a science writer for The Washington Post, said almost 40 years ago. “The today lead is something most of us do because we are still trapped in traditional ideas of newspapering. At a scientific meeting there may be hundreds of papers delivered, all of them important. There is no reason why we shouldn’t pick up one of those papers three weeks later and do a story about it. But the traditional light bulb flashes on in our minds and says it’s old if it’s not hung up like a coat on a news peg.” Although the urgent demand for a news peg -- even an artificial one -- for science and medical news is not new, the embargo perpetuates the problem by giving journalists and their media organizations an unending stream of such pegs, so many that a lazy journalist could write only about journal articles if he or she chose.
Journalists’ role in perpetuating and even extending journal embargoes is illustrated by the recent history of embargoes at online journals published by BioMed Central. Like a few other innovative journal publishers, BioMed Central has seized on the Internet as a medium for publishing research journals at lower cost and with wider reach than traditional journals. These new online journals are known as open-access journals. One of its hallmarks is that it publishes a journal article as soon as peer review and editing are complete, without the lengthy delays that sometimes characterize printed journals.
When BioMed Central started in 2000, it did not offer advance embargoed access to journalists; journalists had to wait to read a journal article until it was publicly posted on BioMed Central’s Web site. But journalists ignored its journal articles.
Consequently, in 2003, BioMed Central tweaked its editorial processes so it could start offering journalists a brief period of embargoed access -- a few days to at most a week. Since the change, BioMed Central has seen a marked increase in press coverage.
The fact that some journalists and scientists benefit from the embargo does not mean that the public benefits from it as well. Indeed, the embargo works against the public interest in many ways. One is in how the embargo steers journalists away from covering science and medicine as institutions with messy problems, such as fraud, mistreatment of human subjects, failed research, and misplaced priorities. Journalists who are chasing after the latest embargoed journal article do not have time to investigate the workings of science and medicine in this way.
Indeed, the central problem with embargoes -- and the reason that the embargo system should be eliminated -- is that embargoes are a distraction for journalists and their media organizations, which diverts them from covering what really matters. "To survive, reporters become dependent on the daily cascade of embargoed research papers, e-mailed press releases, university tip sheets, and conference abstracts,” says Robert Lee Hotz, a science reporter at the Los Angeles Times. “The goal of all of us ought to be to try to get around embargoes and pack-aged science journalism by finding new ways to get our collective noses under the tent,” according to Cristine Russell, former science and medical reporter for The Washington Star and The Washington Post. “I think that we should not have such herd journalism.... I am very concerned that we get very lazy and complacent by sitting around waiting for the journals to deliver us the news that something’s happening in science.... I think people should get out and cover science.”
Of course, no one forces journalists to report embargoed stories. In part, the embargo’s focus on late-breaking research appeals to the personal and professional interests of many science and medical journalists, who entered the field to report about the wonders of research -- not the bare-knuckles reality of the research world. “Most science reporters tend to behave rather like sports writers: they have chosen their topic out of love for it,” the sociologist Dorothy Nelkin has observed.
The embargo system also works against the public interest in the way that it misleads the public about science and medicine. The embargo creates a torrent of news that draws excessive public attention to most research. Put simply, journalists should ignore most of the journal articles that they now cover so energetically. Most journal articles are but single dots in the pointillist enterprise that is the scientific method -- but the breathless coverage catalyzed by the embargo system often gives the impression that each week’s paper is a major breakthrough. Journalists pay much less attention to later studies that play down the findings.
The best science and medical journalists recognize the inherent uncertainty in any piece of research. “It takes repeated observations or experiments, usually attacking the mystery from different angles with results all pointing to the same answer, before honest researchers begin to believe that they actually understand something new,” says Boyce Rensberger, a former science journalist for The Washington Post and now the director of a mid-career science-journalism fellowship program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The trump card for embargo supporters is accuracy: News about science and medicine is so difficult to research and write, goes this argument, that journalists need time to do the job correctly -- or the public could be harmed by inaccurate reporting. Susan Turner-Lowe, former director of public affairs at the National Academy of Sciences, describes it this way: "Journalists have traded accuracy for scoops.” Among many proponents of embargoes, being critical of embargoes therefore is tantamount to supporting erroneous reporting.
But the fact is that many other journalists work effectively without embargoes, day after day. Consider the complexity and implications of other stories covered by journalists who do not specialize in science and medicine: the latest Supreme Court decision, a tax bill passed by Congress, a massive airplane accident, and others. Each of these stories rivals many science and medical stories in technical complexity, the difficulty that journalists may have in reaching expert sources for comment, and the impact on readers or listeners if inaccurate information is reported. Yet reporters uncomplainingly cover these and a myriad of other stories without the helping hand of an embargo. Even Nature’s Peter Wrobel concedes that the embargo is not essential for good coverage of science and medicine. “It doesn’t require five or six days, or even three, to write most stories,” he says. Alexandra Witze, a science reporter for The Dallas Morning News, says that the accuracy rationale for journal embargoes is “insulting” to science journalists. “It assumes that we are incapable of doing our job as journalists in any other field are.”
However, views such as hers are scarce among science and medical journalists, who agree with journal publishers that embargoes serve the public interest because embargoed advance access to scholarly journals promotes accurate, orderly journalism about science and medicine. This is not necessarily the case. Journalists who operate by a learned set of professional norms and practices are likely to make the same mistakes in a story whether they have a day or a week to prepare it. Moreover, an individual reporter may not use all the additional time that the embargo provides. With an embargo of several days, the reporter may work on the embargoed story in bits and pieces, fitting that story around other stories that the reporter is covering.
Journalists do have an ethical obligation to society to be accurate, but accuracy is more than the technical accuracy of figures and scientific terms. Taken as a whole, science reporting should provide an accurate picture of scientific and medical research, particularly in areas of personal importance to members of the public, such as health issues. The embargo arrangement encourages pack reporting of research from a few selected journals regardless of whether the research is truly important or definitive.
It also bears noting that although the editors of scholarly journals that operate under embargoes voice support for the practice, it clearly does not enjoy total support in academe. Some scholarly societies -- such as the American Geophysical Union and others -- see no need for an embargo or believe that it does not operate in the public interest. Individual scholars also criticize the embargo arrangement. Some characterize it as a type of collusion that interferes with the stated purpose of scholarly communication. In the words of one science librarian: “Science is supposed to progress through rapid communication of results among scientists, but the embargo system is a barrier to this free exchange of information. One can understand that publishers do not want to feed the public with incomplete and inaccurate information but other scientists in the academy would have liked to enjoy the same kind of privilege extended to the media.”
In the short run, the Internet has probably bolstered the embargo system, particularly because the World Wide Web and electronic mail have provided new tools for distributing embargoed articles to journalists. EurekAlert! in particular has been a resounding success story for embargo proponents, so much so that it has spawned imitators such as Nature’s p ress Web site and AlphaGalileo.
But in the long run, online communications will probably undermine embargoes on news about science and medicine. One reason is the very phenomenon noted in the previous paragraph as an argument that the Internet has initially bolstered the embargo: the ease with which the Internet can connect journal publishers with a worldwide cadre of journalists. More and more science and medical journalists, around the globe, are participating in embargoes sponsored by journals in the United States and Britain. Many of these journalists may not be as heavily invested in the embargo system and therefore are more likely to jump the gun when an important paper comes along.
Put more simply: Decades ago, when journal embargoes began, science and medical journalists constituted a handful of reporters who worked alongside one another constantly, at various scientific conferences, meetings, and events. A science or medical journalist who broke an embargo knew that he (and back then, a science or medical journalist almost always was a “he”) would face angry questions from fellow journalists the next time he encountered them. By contrast, the journalists who today participate in the embargo are scattered around the world; many are unlikely to ever have to face the journalists in the United States and Britain who would be most discomfited by an embargo violation. Or from the standpoint of the social construction of news, the widening of the pool of potential embargo participants made possible by the Internet’s global reach may seriously erode the social bonds that maintain the embargo. As the embargo comes to include more journalists around the world, the participants are likely to include individuals who have not been socialized to honor embargoes and who would be immune to social pressures from other embargo participants to conform to embargo rules.
The Internet will also weaken the embargo because it is transforming the process of scientific communication itself. Most traditional journals now offer online access to their articles, with the articles often posted long before the printed journal arrives in a scholar’s mailbox. Some journals have gone a step further, by publishing some or all of their articles online before they are published in print. The New England Journal of Medicine, for example, has posted on its Web site certain articles that, in the opinion of its editors, were in the public interest for rapid dissemination. Although the New England journal generally restricts online access to paid subscribers of the journal, anyone could read or download these “early release” articles. Science and Nature have also begun to post selected journal articles online, after they have completed peer review and editing but before they appear in print.
Increasingly, early online publication appears to be becoming the norm for at least some journal publishers. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, for example, publishes all articles online before they appear in print, as much as five weeks later. The American Chemical Society also publishes online some of the articles issued in its 27 journals as soon as they are ready for publication, even if they have not yet appeared in a printed publication. The articles are posted online after they have been peer-reviewed, copyedited, and checked by the author. Embargoes for these articles are much shorter than embargoes for printed journals.
The Internet is also changing other aspects of communication among scientists. One example is the departmental seminar, often conducted in the late afternoon, perhaps along with punch and cookies, at which a local researcher or a visiting scholar offers a brief presentation on recent research. Increasingly, departments are transmitting live video of these seminars across the Web, using streaming video, to anyone who cares to watch and listen. The National Institutes of Health, for example, Webcasts many such seminars each week. The Multi-University/Research Laboratory -- a joint effort of computer scientists at six universities or corporations -- similarly transmits live seminars in that field.
Although it is impractical for most science journalists to cover departmental seminars in person, nothing stops journalists from covering these broadcasts as news, or watching them as a way to develop leads on future research developments. There is little indication that journalists are using Webcasts as a reporting tool to date, but journalists could use the fact of such a live Webcast (and, more compellingly, the existence of a freely available online copy) as evidence that a particular research finding is in the public domain, vacating any embargo. (Interestingly, The New England Journal of Medicine -- one of the most staunch foes of online prior publication -- has ruled that it will not disqualify from publication an audio recording of a presentation at a medical conference along with “selected slides from the presentation.”)
Scientists are also using the Web to archive and distribute preprints of their papers. With the advent of the Web, scholarly societies and even individual scholars have created databases on which authors can deposit electronic copies of their papers. Few journalists use the Web sites to plumb for news.
One who does is Tom Siegfried, science editor of The Dallas Morning News. “There’s plenty of stuff to report out there before they appear in journals,” he says. Every night, he says, he checks physics preprint servers, because the latest research is usually reported there first. “In physics nowadays the journals have become increasingly irrelevant,” he contends, with their role largely limited to serving as the archival copies of important papers and for proving records for tenure.
Even aside from these new forms of online scholarly communication, the Internet weakens the embargo system by providing new routes for embargoed information to leak into the public sphere. “A lot of my reporting is Web surfing,” says Alexandra Witze, also of The Dallas Morning News. “Journals are one tool among many. I think the problem is that many journalists focus on them as the only tool.”
Internet mailing lists, newsgroups, Web sites, and blogs all provide venues for interested nonjournalists to swap information about research news. Journals publish tables of contents of upcoming issues. Scholarly societies post abstracts of papers to be presented at their scientific meetings. Support groups for individuals suffering from particular diseases and their families, for example, are likely to operate online information sources that discuss clinical trials of treatments for the disease in question. Attentive journalists monitoring these Web sites and mailing lists could well glean information that could lead to stories outside the embargo.
Such a surfeit of information will increasingly create situations in which science and medical journalists decide that online information has vacated the embargo on a specific journal article. Indeed, this was one of the justifications made by The Detroit Free Press and journalists at other media organizations who prematurely reported findings on a study of hormone-replacement therapy in 2002; the findings, they said, were already being discussed online: “Women’s health sites on the Internet were buzzing about what the study said and what women should do.”
The embargo system should be replaced with full and open disclosure of research results as soon as they are ready for public consumption, which generally would mean as soon as peer review is complete. Once a scholarly paper has been accepted by a journal, scientists and their institutions should be free to tell the world about it, and journalists should be free to report on it if they deem it newsworthy. As many have already begun to do, the journal in question could make the accepted paper available to its subscribers online, so that the subscribers could consult the full text of the paper for themselves. Journalists would be freed of the perceived tyranny of the embargo, and they would have newfound time to visit scientists in laboratories and troll for investigative stories rather than leafing through press releases and password-protected Web sites in search of what the competition is probably going to report.
This is emphatically not to suggest that science and medical journalists should break embargoes. To the contrary, journalists have both an ethical and a legal duty to abide by agreements with their sources, including embargo agreements. If a journalist obtains information under an embargo, that journalist is ethically bound to honor that embargo, just as the journalist would be ethically bound to, for example, withhold the name of a source if the journalist agreed that the source would be unidentified.
But although journalists are ethically bound to honor embargoes to which they have agreed, they are not ethically required to continue to agree to embargoes. Continuing the parallel to anonymous sources, many media organizations have established policies that govern the conditions under which they will grant anonymity to a source. But the fact that a media organization has had a policy for granting anonymity in the past does not mean that it will always grant that anonymity to all sources in the future. Similarly, the fact that science and medical journalists have used embargoed information in the past, and have respected those embargoes, does not mean that those journalists or their media organizations must continue to agree to embargoes in the future.
In short, science and medical journalists, and their media organizations, should terminate their embargo relationships with journal publishers and stop accepting embargoed information from them. Scientific societies and journal publishers should stop distributing information under embargo. Government research agencies and foundations should stop supporting the embargo, which provides a few with privileged early access to taxpayer-financed research. Universities, which cast themselves as champions of free expression, should oppose embargoes on their faculty members’ research, rather than seeking to hitch their own publicity machines to the journals’.
It is time for science and medical journalists to break out of their dependence on journals as a source of science news, and it is time for scholarly societies to stop trying to shape the flow of news in a way that suits their own political ends. The embargo should go.
Vincent Kiernan is an instructor of journalism at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. This essay is an excerpt from his book, Embargoed Science, published this month by the University of Illinois Press.
Submitted by Emily Toth on October 10, 2006 - 4:00am
I direct a journalism program at a science-oriented university where my colleagues are modern-day alchemists, turning corn into fuel, conjuring twisters in wind tunnels, or morphing visitors at our virtual reality lab into plant cells during photosynthesis.
These professors rank among the most ingenious, passionate people I have ever met.
Put some of them in front of a reporter, however, and all bets are off.
Being misquoted in the media is commonplace, especially when the topic concerns science. Depending on the error, a quotation out of context can catapult a scientist into the national spotlight where the person gets to clarify the remarks and do it again, only this time for a mass audience.
Analyzing cases of foot-in-mouth disease (not Aphtae epizooticae), I came to this conclusion: When researchers simplify science, they often end up providing sound bites that overstate findings.
Sound bites bite back. As early as 1993 Dorothy Nelkin, author of Selling Science: How the Press Covers Science and Technology (W.H. Freeman), warned that scientists tend to oversell research when explaining it to reporters. Back then, media consisted mostly of newspapers, television and radio. Now we Google the news with nauseatingly repetitious reports inundating the blogo- and iPodispheres.
In this milieu, a scientist’s fate is not in the genes but in his or her vocabulary.
Language is symbolic, and therefore imprecise. Words that travel also arrive with luggage. The title of this essay, “Sound Science or Sound Bite,” alludes rhetorically to tobacco lobbyists in 1992 who argued that “sound science” had failed to document that second-hand smoke was a health risk. Also, the term “sound science” may have political overtones. When the government approves of a project, the science is sound; when research runs counter to policy, the science isn’t.
Used here, “sound science” means findings that scientists can replicate in the laboratory. “Sound bite” means something pithy said in the media.
Journalists, of course, are partly to blame for overselling science. True, big national newspapers and broadcast outlets have seasoned correspondents. Science happens everywhere, including college towns like mine, Ames, Iowa, where agricultural biotechnology is on display in fields and on shelves of supermarkets. Many reporters who cover science do not fully grasp it, interviewing sources with polar viewpoints on genetically modified products or exotic animal diseases.
My colleagues diagnose mad cows. Reporters love mad cows because the beasts in question have or do not have the disease. Better yet, we eat on average 67 pounds of beef annually per person, ensuring the story will be read. But the science of immunohistochemistry to test for bovine spongiform encephalopathy at the U.S. Department of Agriculture laboratory is, on occasion, an arcane topic for the reporter who also does restaurant reviews.
The language of science has many dialects. Much is lost in translation. Once I collaborated with a microbiologist who kept referring to “p53” while I frantically paged through a medical report that had 45 pages, only to realize that he was speaking about a tumor suppression gene that encodes a protein with an atomic mass of 53 kilodaltons.
As everyone knows, a kilodalton is 1000 times 1/12 of the mass of one atom of Carbon-12.
I also collaborate with scientists across disciplines, helping them communicate with the public. When their research involves animals, presentations can be dicey, especially when activists are present. Years ago at a public seminar, I witnessed a brilliant, humane geneticist being challenged by an activist about the destruction of natural habitat for use as pasture for livestock. Beef was on the table again, figuratively, with reporters in the room. Nevertheless, in this charged environment, this scientist launched into a lecture on evolution in which he theorized that humans might have been chosen by nature to dominate the planet and, if so, had a right to use the land for their primary food source, cows, as this was an outcome of selection.
At that moment, I became interested in what scientists say to the media and why they say it. What prompted this researcher to meld two hot-button topics -- animal rights and natural selection -- into such a speculative argument?
Perhaps you have followed the debate at Iowa State University about intelligent design. If not, just google “intelligent design” and “Iowa State University” -- with quotations around those phrases -- and you will access almost 18,000 entries. Inside Higher Ed reported the conclusion of that debate last year when 120 of my colleagues signed a statement urging the rejection of intelligent design as science. My intention in referencing the debate is not to rekindle it but to call to your attention a citation in the Ames (Iowa) Tribune made by a famous scientist who delivered a speech here, titled, “Why intelligent design is not science.” He reportedly told the audience that “the origin of life could have come from a sequence of emergent chemical events, each one more complex than the last.”
Upon reading that statement, I sent an e-mail to a few scientists on campus who believe that intelligent design is philosophy rather than science. (So do I, by the way.) I didn’t attend the speech, but I did have an opinion about the statement as reported, because it seemed to use the same type of overreaching argument often associated with creation science. On reading that someone had identified a sequence of chemical events accounting for the origins of life, my immediate reaction was jealousy. Apparently, the scientist had spoken to God, and I wanted an interview, too.
“This is why the public and media put a stop to all manner of scientific projects,” I messaged my colleagues. “Cloning research is a case in point. People believe that geneticists are engineering life -- a hyperbole, at best; the cell is engineering life. To state otherwise is to believe that the U.S. Corps of Engineers created water, not the dam.”
My colleagues generally agreed.
Based on the statement at the Iowa State speech, which came off as sound bite (or “pull quote,” in newspaper lingo) rather than as sound science, the speaker subsequently was taken to task in letters. One noted that his view was “conjectural and unsubstantiated” because no scientist “has been able to synthesize a single nucleotide from a prebiotic environment. Amino acids yes, but nucleotide, no.”
In a word, that speaker’s one sentence about evolutionary theory sparked another round of debate about intelligent design. Weeks passed. Folks called each other names in letters to editors. Finally, the furor died down.
I had forgotten about all this. Then I received a journal in the mail called In Character funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. One article in this edition stood out as exemplary: “Creation Myths: What scientists don’t -- and can’t -- know about the world.”
It carried this subtitle:
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “scientist”? Chances are it isn’t “modesty or humility.” A simple experiment underscores this conclusion. Type “modest scientist” or “humble scientist” into the Internet search engine Google and you’ll be lucky if you get more than a couple of hits. Then do the same thing with “arrogant scientist” and the number of hits increases by an order of magnitude. Arrogance is something both journalist and scientist seem to have in common because they also share another trait, a passion for truth. Journalistic objectivity is partly based on scientific fact-finding. The great 19th century British essayist Matthew Arnold wrote about “genuine scientific passion” in the 1869 essay, “Culture and Anarchy.” In it, he used the phrase -- “to see things as they are,” not as we wish they were. This, he wrote, was a “social idea” that made such persons, scientists especially, “the true apostles of equality” who “have a passion for diffusing, for making prevail, from one end of society to the other, the best knowledge, the best ideas of their time.”
This also was the intent in the Ames lecture, “Why intelligent design is not science.” However, the passion for truth, condensed into a pull quote in the newspaper, often is mistaken for arrogance, especially when we attach pop cultural notions to topics as controversial as evolutionary theory being able to substantiate the complex chemical sequences responsible for the origins of life.
To put this into perspective, consider this: The scientist who visited my university and who reportedly made that comment happens to be the same person who wrote the essay, titled, “Creation Myths: What scientists don’t -- and can’t -- know about the world” in the journal In Character. His name is Robert Hazen, author of the extraordinary book, Gen-e-sis: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origins, and a professor of earth science at George Mason University.
Read Hazen’s book, if you haven’t already. When you do, you realize that his comment as reported in the Ames Tribune actually is based on the molecular fossil record. Most reviews of his work note how fair and balanced his theories actually are.
You can’t deduce that, however, by reading the 387 words in the story about his talk at Iowa State University on February 3, 2006. You need to glean the 339 pages in Hazen’s hard cover book.
And in this numerical comparison is also the problem at hand.
Bites from Books
Below are some of the most influential books that helped shape a century of science, according to The American Scientist, the magazine of the Scientific Research Society. To illustrate my point, I have reduced each work’s premise or conclusion into a sound bite -- an excerpt taken out of context -- the way many reporters do speeches by scientists. Sometimes those reporters jot down the premise and leave before the conclusion, to make deadline, especially if the speech is scheduled between 7-8 p.m., allowing little time to write and file the report. Sometimes reporters working on multiple stories show up for the conclusion and miss the premise, asking a few quick questions afterward and then scooting.
What would be the outcome, I wondered, if reporters attended lectures by authors of these great books, quoting them out of context in the year of publication, given the social mores of those times?
1. Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell (1954): “Although obviously superior to cocaine, opium, alcohol and tobacco, mescaline is not yet the ideal drug. Along with the happily transfigured majority of mescaline takers there is a minority that finds in the drug only hell or purgatory” (p. 66).
2. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (1959): “[M]an is seen not as a static centre of the world—as he for long believed himself to be -- but as the axis and leading shoot of evolution, which is something much finer” (p. 36).
3. Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962): “Future historians may well be amazed by our distorted sense of proportion. How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?” (p. 8.)
4. Benoit B. Mandelbrot, Fractals (1977): “Why is geometry often described as ‘cold’ and ‘dry’? One reason lies in its inability to describe the shape of a cloud, a mountain a coastline, or a tree.… Mathematicians have disdained this challenge, however, and have increasingly chosen to flee from nature by devising theories unrelated to anything we can see or feel” (p. 2).
5. Jane Goodall, In the Shadow of Man (1988): “Who knows what the chimpanzee will be like forty million years hence? It should be of concern to us all that we permit him to live, that we at least give him the chance to evolve” (p. 252).
6. Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory (1992): “If there is a God that has special plans for humans, then He has taken very great pains to hide His concern for us. To me it would seem impolite if not impious to bother such a God with our prayers” (p. 251).
7. Denise Schmandt-Besserat, How Writing Came About (1996): “[W]riting emerged from a counting device.… Each change of reckoning device -- tallies, plain tokens, complex tokens -- corresponded to a new form of economy: hunting and gathering, agriculture, industry” (p. 122).
If you have read these books, you would realize that the above citations require substantiation. Those excerpts make great pull quotes in print or sound bites on air. However, taken out of context, they also provoke as much as inform. That is why I caution scientists to at least qualify similar remarks with humbler disclaimers, especially if they believe passionately in their assertions.
Straight to the Source
How, indeed, do scientists successfully condense the data of their passionate truths and convey them dispassionately to non-scientist reporters on a topic that is sure to spark controversy and debate?
I put that question to Robert Hazen, who responded at length in this e-mail:
“[S]cientists must be ever so careful when talking to reporters, especially those not trained in science or who are working on a tight deadline. Scientific progress can be halting, technically dense, often incomplete and filled with caveats. The scientific story is often messy, with lingering doubts, rival hypotheses, and always lots more work to be done (because the more we learn, the more we realize we have yet to learn).
“Reporters, on the other hand, want a neat story, simply told and unambiguous in its meaning. Reporters also love a controversy, and (in the interests of ‘fair and balanced’ reporting) will often present two opposing viewpoints with equal weight, even when the scientific community overwhelmingly endorses just one conclusion.
“So what's a scientist to do? My approach is to explain three things:
“First, describe what we think we know about the topic (and, if possible, provide a little background about the measurements and theory that support that knowledge). How do we arrive at our conclusions?
“Second, explain what we DON'T know about the topic, including the uncertainties, the controversies, and a sense of how much weight to place on different ideas. It's always best to be honest about our imperfect state of understanding.
“Third, and equally important, explain what we're doing to find out more.”
According to Dr. Hazen, science is a never-ending adventure.
I feel the same way about journalism.
It is the task of journalist and scientist to communicate that sense of adventure to the public without misquotation or overstatement. After all, in both our disciplines, the facts should speak for themselves.
Michael Bugeja, who directs the journalism school at Iowa State University, is author ofÂ Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age (Oxford University Press, 2005).
As a doctor and scientist, I'm firmly convinced that America's future as a world economic leader lies with our scientific establishment. For too long, America has let basic research spending stagnate in many fields.
If we wish to remain the world's economic leader, Congress needs to embrace additional investments in research and development: Technological advances have brought us important economic catalysts ranging from the internal combustion engine to the Internet. Without continuing technological advances, we'll fall behind the rest of the world.
We haven't reached the crisis point yet. We still have the best research universities in the world, take home a lion's share of Nobel prizes in the sciences (including all of those awarded in this year) and lead the planet in most high tech fields. We produce more top scientists and engineers per capita than any country with an economy even close to our size.
But we can't afford to be complacent. For the first time since we won the Cold War, other nations are mounting an aggressive challenge to the United States' position as a world leader in science. China and India combined produce more than twice as many engineers each year than the United States. Both have exceeded our rate of economic growth over the past decade and, although they're starting from a much lower base, both have increased funding for basic research more quickly than we have.
This presents a challenge because we're currently under-investing in basic research. Although the level of overall federal scientific spending sits at an all-time high in real dollar terms, as a percentage of GDP it remains smaller than it was during the Apollo program years of the late 1960s. Distressingly, furthermore, some recent scientific policies shifted our own priorities away from basic research. While I have nothing against applied research -- as a doctor, I never did any other kind -- we ultimately need to do more basic research if we want to retain our position as a world leader. The invention of devices like the iPod, a wonderful machine that has changed the way we listen to music, will never result in a Nobel Prize. Without new fundamental discoveries about the nature of the universe and our world, the United States can't remain the world's economic and technological leader.
While efforts that I led to double the National Institutes of Health budget have resulted in a healthy increase in basic research in the life sciences, basic research capacity in the physical sciences has remained almost flat in real dollar terms. This needs to change.
Working with members of both parties, therefore, I'm planning to lead an effort to lay out a roadmap for renewed investment in basic research so we can retain America's global leadership in the sciences. The legislation I'm supporting would authorize a 100 percent increase in funding for both the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy's Office of Science. In addition, it will launch efforts to increase high-risk/high-reward cutting edge research efforts in the Department of Energy and at the Commerce Department’s National Institute for Standards and Technology. Thirty-eight Senators, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, have already agreed to co-sponsor the bill.
All this, however, will do little good unless we train the next generation of scientists. Through the SMART grant program that I authored, we've already given targeted increases in student aid to bright students studying science and math at the college level. Now we need to improve things in the earlier in the education system. Thus, this legislation launches an effort to improve science and math education at the elementary and secondary levels. It also establishes new training programs for teachers, offers grants to states to improve coordination of science education, helps establish more math and science secondary schools, and will strengthen partnerships between universities and the National Science Foundation.
Although very few members of Congress will openly oppose science funding in principle, many believe that we have more urgent priorities. I disagree. Basic research should rank among our very top priorities for increased funding. Nonetheless, action on competitiveness legislation will require increased efforts to convince members of Congress that basic research matters. It’s vital that research university faculty and administrators do everything they can to make sure that elected members of the Senate and House of Representatives understand the importance of this legislation.
America stands at a crossroads. Unless we move to expand our basic research establishment, we could very well face economic stagnation and a loss of global scientific leadership. We can't afford to let that happen.
Sen. Bill Frist, a former assistant professor of surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical School, is majority leader of the United States Senate.
Research competitiveness and productivity are complex subjects that should inform the development and oversight of R&D programs at the national, state and institutional levels. From a national policy perspective, studies of our national innovation ecosystem – of the factors that promote discovery and innovation – are important to America’s economic vitality.
Ironically, rather than advance our knowledge and discussion of these important topics, many university presidents seem more inclined to debate the shortcomings of available measures such as the rankings of U.S. News & World Report, sometimes even threatening to boycott the surveys. What is more, these same presidents defend the absence of adequate measurements of institutional performance by saying that the strength of American higher education lies in the diversity of its institutions. So why not develop a framework that characterizes institutional variety and demonstrates productivity understandably, effectively and broadly throughout the spectrum of our institutions?
Of course, it is not easy to characterize the wide range of America’s more than 3,500 colleges and universities. Even among the more limited number of research universities, institutional diversity is so broad that every approach to rank or even classify institutions has been rightly criticized. Most research rankings use only input measures, such as amount of federal funding or total expenditures for research, when funding agencies would be served better by information about outcomes -- the research performance of universities.
The Center for Measuring University Performance, founded by John Lombardi, has compiled some of the most comprehensive data on research universities. Its annual studies examine the multi-dimensional aspects of research universities and rank them in groups defined by relative performance on various measurable characteristics -- research funding, private giving, faculty awards, doctorate degrees, postdoctoral fellows and measures of undergraduate student quality.
The 2005 report of the Center and a recent column on this site by Lombardi note the upward or downward skewing of expenditure rankings by the mere presence or absence of either a medical or an engineering school, thereby acknowledging the problems of comparability among institutions. Lombardi hints at a much-needed analysis of research competitiveness/strengths and productivity, stating, “Real accountability comes when we develop specific measures to assess the performance of comparable institutions on the same measures.”
Indeed, a particularly thorny question always has been how to create meaningful comparisons between large and smaller research universities, or even between specific research programs within universities. This struggle seems to arise in part from the fundamental question that underlies the National Science Foundation rankings -- namely, should winning or expending more research dollars be the only criterion for a higher ranking? I think not. Quite simply, in the absence of output measures, the more-is-better logic is flawed. If research productivity is equal, why should a university that spends more money for research be ranked higher than one that spends less? The sizes of research budgets alone do not create equally productive outcomes. Other contributing factors need to be considered. For example, some universities have much larger licensing revenues than those with comparable research budgets, and all surveys that measure licensing revenues compared to research income show no correlation, especially when scaled.
Because there are no established frameworks to get at the various factors that are likely involved, I think a good beginning would be to characterize research competitiveness and productivity separately.
Because available R&D dollars vary widely by agency and field of research, and because universities do not have uniform research strengths, I suggest that portfolio analyses of research funding need to be performed. A given university’s research portfolio can be described, quantified and weighed against the percentage of funding available from each federal agency and, when possible, by the sub-areas of research supported by each agency. For example, the upward skewing of rankings is partially explained by the fact that 70 percent of all federal funding is directed at biomedical research. Likewise, the U.S. Department of Agriculture funds only 3 percent of federal research, but provides virtually all of such funds to land grant universities.
Analyses should focus on federal obligations for R&D, rather than total expenditures, because federal obligations are by-and-large competitively awarded and thus come closest to demonstrating competitiveness. Available data, however, present various challenges. For example, some federal funding that supports activities other than research will need to be excluded from analyses (e.g., large contracts that give universities management of support programs). Also, data are available only at the macro level of disciplines, such as engineering versus life sciences, which means that detailed distinctions between research areas will be difficult to achieve.
In addition, I submit that research competitiveness can only be demonstrated when one university's research portfolio is growing faster than those of other comparable universities, or faster than the rate at which federal funding itself is growing. I call this a “percent growth” comparison and think that, although formally equivalent, it is intuitively easier to understand than the “market share” approach used by Roger Geiger in his 1993 book, Research and Relevant Knowledge: American Research Universities Since World War II. Geiger’s 2004 book, Knowledge and Money: Research Universities and the Paradox of the Marketplace, clearly demonstrates how some universities have gained while others have lost their competitive positions in federally funded research over the years.
Ideally, if the data were available, research strengths should be examined over time at the micro level, by sub-disciplines or by areas of emphasis. For example, because growth in agency budgets has not occurred uniformly across agencies or over time, it would be instructive to note how portfolio shares change over time and how a particular university has fared in specific research areas. Battelle’s Technology Practice has used new tools for the graphical representation of research portfolios to draw some interesting conclusions about how some universities are linked to industrial clusters.
Relative growth is not enough because it begs the question of productivity to scale. Unfortunately, scaled research productivity data are scarce. Two seldom-mentioned sources are, however, available.
First, there is the 1997 book, The Rise of American Research Universities: Elites and Challengers in the Postwar Era, in which Hugh Davis Graham and Nancy Diamond offer new analyses, including comparisons scaled by faculty size. Their approach yields per-faculty productivity data of (1) research funding, (2) publications and (3) comparisons between private and public universities. Although the data are now dated and others have found difficulty with information on faculty size and faculty roles, I believe that the methodology employed by Graham and Diamond is worth revisiting, refining and building upon.
Second, there are the annual surveys from the Association of University Technology Managers that scale productivity in terms of output per million dollars of research activity. The AUTM data look at measurable outputs such as disclosures, patents, licenses and new company startups. Although some of these data are subject to analytical problems of their own, it is notable that the institutions that emerge as the most productive are not those at the top of the NSF rankings. More recently, the Milken Institute has begun using the AUTM data to probe the free market system as related to university research.
Beyond competitiveness and productivity:
The research competitiveness and productivity analyses discussed above are modest suggestions to improve upon the commonly used and all too simplistic more-is-better approach of the NSF rankings. Still, if we are actually to improve our analytical framework so as to advance the R&D policy debate, we will need to develop more sophisticated tools.
For example, in the productivity domain and in regard to determining how one piece of research interacts with another, scaled comparisons could also be generated by measuring per-faculty citations and their relationship to other publications. Here, I think that a good start could be by way of the various citation indices published by the Institute for Scientific Information and through the newer Faculty Scholarly Productivity Index. None of these indices has been, to my knowledge, related to funding data, which presents an intriguing opportunity.
An issue not yet addressed by either productivity or competitiveness measures is that of tracking intellectual property flows. How can we begin to trace the flows of ideas and new technologies generated by universities? This question might benefit from the kind of cluster analysis of citations first pioneered by ISI when it “discovered” the emergence of the new field of immunology. The patent data base would be another resource that could be brought to this task. Indeed, my colleague Gary Markovits, founder and CEO of Innovation Business Partners, has developed new processes and search tools that improve the hit-rate of patent data base searches, and he has worked with the Office of Naval Research on ways to accelerate the rate of innovation at their laboratories. Universities and other federal laboratories would do well to consider some of these approaches.
The public and Congress are now clamoring for accountability in higher education, just as they are with regard to health care, and while the college accountability discussions focus on undergraduate education, it won’t be long before they spread to research spending. No longer can we simply assert that adequate and comparable measurements are impossible, expecting the public to blindly trust that we in the academy know quality when we see it. As scholars and researchers, we can and must do better. Otherwise, the predictable result will be public distrust that fails to sustain even the current levels of federal R&D investments.
Luis M. Proenza
Luis M. Proenza is president of the University of Akron and a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and the Council on Competitiveness.
There is little doubt that the United States has some of the best science and engineering schools in the world. So why should we be concerned that the American scientist might become an endangered species?
The main problem is that too few Americans are enrolling in these programs. Although the number of students enrolled in science and engineering graduate programs in the United States has increased by 25 percent from 1994 to 2001, the number of U.S. citizens enrolled in these programs has declined by 10 percent during that period. Contrast this with India, Japan, China and South Korea, where the number of bachelor's degrees in the sciences has doubled and the number of engineering bachelor's degrees has quadrupled since 1975.
In the United States, 17 percent of all bachelor's degrees are awarded in the sciences and engineering, while in China, 52 percent of four-year degrees focus on STEM areas. This trend is just as obvious in graduate programs: U.S. graduate degrees in the sciences make up only about 13 percent of graduate degrees awarded in this country. In Japan, South Korea, Sweden and Switzerland over 40 percent of the graduate degrees are awarded in science.
The numbers indicate that the American scientist population is not healthy, especially not in comparison to scientists in other countries. This will impact America's ability to retain its place in the global (scientific and technological) food chain. What could be responsible for this decline? My money is on the changing habitat of the American scientist , climate change, and the introduction of exotic species.
Changing habitat. The number of males going to colleges and universities in America is declining. This has a significant effect on the number of scientists, since white males make up two-thirds of the scientific workforce but represent only one third of the population. Possible reasons for this -- competition from computer games and the disappearance of chemistry sets. Fortunately the number of females entering the sciences is increasing; however it's not fast enough to keep up with the disappearing males.
African Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians comprise 23 percent of the American population and the percentage is increasing. However, students from under-represented minority groups make up only 13 percent of science graduates. They are an intellectual talent pool that is waiting to be tapped.
Climate change. The authority and autonomy of science is being eroded. The current administration is mainly responsible for this. How can we expect our youth to aspire to being scientists when NASA, NOAA and the Smithsonian admit to changing reports, graphs and scientific conclusions in order to appease the Bush administration's ideas about global warming?
There are no modern Einsteins gracing the cover of Rolling Stone. Most Americans will have difficulty naming a living and influential scientist. Perhaps this is due to the decrease in popular science writing. In the same week as the Time/People/Fortune group of magazines laid off their three science writers they paid $4.1 million for the pictures of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's baby.
Decreased biodiversity. In 2005, 29 percent of science and engineering graduate students were not U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Due to stricter immigration regulations after 9/11 fewer of these graduates were able to join the ranks of the American scientist -- depleting the species of diversity and many talented individuals.
Introduction of exotic species. Pseudoscience is putting a dent in the reputation of the American scientist at home and abroad. A $27 million museum just opened in Kentucky. It claims to use science to prove that everything in the book of Genesis is true. Three Republican presidential candidates do not believe in evolution, not surprising since a recent poll showed that half of Americans agree, and think the age of the earth is in the thousands of years, not billions. Here again the authority and autonomy of science are called into question.
According to EndangeredSpecie.com, "One of the most important ways to help threatened plants and animals survive is to protect their habitats permanently in national parks, nature reserves or wilderness areas. There they can live without too much interference from humans." Perhaps this could be adapted for the endangered American scientists: One of the most important ways to help threatened scientists is to protect their habitats permanently in laboratories, classrooms and museums. There they can live without too much interference from politics and religion.
Marc Zimmer is the Barbara Zaccheo Kohn '72 Professor of Chemistry and chair of the chemistry department at Connecticut College.
In a variety of arenas, from politics to high schools, from colleges to the military, Americans argue as though the proper face-to-face discussion in our society ought to be between religion and science. This is a misunderstanding of the taxonomy of thought. Religion and science are in different families on different tracks: science deals with is vs. isn’t and religion, to the extent that it relates to daily life, deals with should vs. shouldn’t.
These are fundamentally different trains. They may hoot at each other in passing, and many people attempt to switch them onto the same track (mainly in order to damage science), but this is an act of the desperate, not the thoughtful.
It is true that a portion of religious hooting has to do with is vs. isn’t questions, in the arena of creationism and its ancillary arguments. However, this set of arguments, important as it might be for some religious people, is not important to a great many (especially outside certain Protestant variants), while the moral goals and effects of religious belief are a far more common and widespread concern among many faiths. I was raised in Quaker meeting, where we had a saying: Be too busy following the good example of Jesus to argue about his metaphysical nature.
Until recently, most scientists didn’t bother trying to fight with religion; for the most part they ignored it or practiced their own faiths. However, in recent years Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris have decided to enter the ring and fight religion face to face. The results have been mixed. I have read books by all of these authors on this subject, as well as the interesting 2007 blog exchange between Harris and Andrew Sullivan, one of the best writers active today and a practicing Catholic, and it is clear that a great deal of energy is being expended firing heavy ordnance into black holes with no likelihood of much effect.
The problem that the scientific horsemen face is that theirs is the language of is/isn’t. Their opponents (mostly Christians but by implication observant Jews and Muslims as well) don’t use the word “is” to mean the same thing. To a religious person, God is and that’s where the discussion begins. To a nonreligious scientist, God may or may not be, and that is where the discussion begins.
The two sides, postulating only two for the moment, are each on spiral staircases, but the stairs wind around each other and never connect: this is the DNA of unmeeting thoughts. Only shouting across the gap happens, and the filters of meaning are not aligned. That is why I don’t put much faith, you’ll pardon the expression, in this flying wedge of scientific lancers to change very many minds.
Dennett’s approach is quite different from the others at a basic level; he views religious people as lab rats and wants to study why they squeak the way they do. That way of looking at the issue seems insulting at first but is more honest and practical in that it doesn’t really try to change minds that are not likely to change.
But these arguments are the wrong ones at a very basic level, especially for our schools and the colleges that train our teachers. The contrapuntal force to religion, that force which is in the same family, if a different genus, speaks the same language in different patterns regarding the same issues. It is not science, it is philosophy. That is what our teachers need to understand, and this distinction is the one in which education colleges should train them.
Those of us who acknowledge the factual world of science as genuine and reject the idea of basing moral and “should” questions in the teachings of religion are left seeking an alternate source for sound guidance. Our own judgment based in experience is a strong basic source. The most likely source, the ‘respectable’ source with sound academic underpinnings that can refine, inform and burnish our judgment, is philosophy in its more formal sense.
The word “philosophy” conjures in many minds the image of dense, dismal texts written by oil lamp with made-up words in foreign languages, and far beyond mortal ken. In fact, many writers on philosophy are quite capable of writing like human beings; some of their books are noted below.
When we introduce more religious studies into our K-12 schools, as we must if people are ever to understand each other’s lives, the family of learning into which they must go also contains philosophy. It is this conversation, between the varieties of religious outlooks and their moral conclusions, and the same questions discussed by major philosophers, that needs to happen.
Philosophy is not all a dense, opaque slurry of incomprehensible language. Some excellent basic books are available that any reasonably willing reader can comprehend and enjoy. Simon Blackburn’s Think, Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins’ A Passion for Wisdom and Erik Wielenberg’s Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe are some recent examples.
An older text providing a readable commentary on related issues is John Jay Chapman’s Religion and Letters, still in print in his Collected Works but hard to find in the original, single volume . Chapman wrote of changes in our school system that:
“It is familiarity with greatness that we need—an early and first-hand acquaintance with the thinkers of the world, whether their mode of thought was music or marble or canvas or language. Their meaning is not easy to come at, but in so far as it reaches us it will transform us. A strange thing has occurred in America. I am not sure that it has ever occurred before. The teachers wish to make learning easy. They desire to prepare and peptonize and sweeten the food. Their little books are soft biscuits for weak teeth, easy reading on great subjects, but these books are filled with a pervading error: they contain a subtle perversion of education. Learning is not easy, but hard: culture is severe.”
This, published in 1910, is remarkably relevant to education at all levels today. The idea that philosophy is too hard for high school students, which I doubt, simply means that we need to expect more of students all through K-12. Many of them would thank us.
Paul Kurtz’s Affirmations and my brother John Contreras’s Gathering Joy are interesting “guidebooks” that in effect apply philosophical themes in an informal way to people’s real lives. There are also somewhat more academic books that integrate what amount to philosophical views into daily life such as Michael Lynch’s True to Life: Why Truth Matters, physicist Alan Lightman’s A Sense of The Mysterious and the theologian John O’Donohue’s Beauty: The Invisible Embrace.
Some of these are denser than others and not all are suited for public schools, but the ideas they discuss are often the same ideas discussed in the context of religions, and sometimes with similar language. It is this great weave of concepts that our students should be exposed to, the continuum of philosophical thought blended with the best that different religions have to offer.
The shoulds and shouldn’ts that are most important to the future of our society need to be discussed in colleges, schools and homes, and the way to accomplish this is to bring religions and philosophies back to life as the yin and yang of right and wrong. That is the great conversation that we are not having.
Alan L. Contreras has been administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, a unit of the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, since 1999. His views do not necessarily represent those of the commission. He blogs at http://oregonreview.blogspot.com.
For at least a decade, universities and federal agencies alike have been engaged in an interdisciplinary arms race, competing to expand interdisciplinary programs and opportunities at ever faster rates in the hopes of achieving that transformational breakthrough in research. At the same time, federal and local programs have been working against the clock, seeking to broaden participation of women and members of minority groups in science, mathematics, and engineering before the U.S. loses its competitive edge.
While research and policy have been concerned with each of these trends often in parallel, surprisingly few efforts have considered them together, to ask whether and how interdisciplinary science might at once not only stimulate discovery across but also attract diversity to the scientific enterprise.
Despite the lack of empirical evidence there seems to be a tacit expectation, if not widespread assumption, on the part of many policy reformers, administrators and researchers that women may have a stronger preference or predisposition for interdisciplinary over disciplinary work as compared to their male colleagues. For example, reform efforts designed to recruit and retain women to science courses and careers often direct universities to: rely more on integrative methods, provide cooperative learning and working environments, use less competitive models of teaching and more flexible models of tenure, frame science in its social context, present practical applications along with theoretical motivations from the outset, and undertake problems with a "holistic" or "global" scope.
Moreover, as researchers interested in interdisciplinarity as an object of study, we have both been asked repeatedly about gender as predictor of participation in or success with interdisciplinary practices. We have also been confronted by scientists telling us that we should not encourage junior women to conduct interdisciplinary research because "women have a hard enough time as it is, you need to keep them focused on rigorous science or they’ll never be taken seriously." After a growing store of anecdotal data to the point, we started to ask ourselves why we weren’t looking at gender and began listening to our peers and readers.
Given we could find only two empirical analyses explicitly tackling the question of gender and interdisciplinarity, we began by recoding our data to see if we had any evidence to support these broader expectations and then proceeded with reviewing different schools of thought to see what theories might best explain the observations.
Of course, over-generalizing and over-essentializing differences between women and men is a common pitfall, and one we do not wish to stumble into here by arguing for simple generic categories. Using gender as a lens, the purpose is to develop an awareness of how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and socio-structural factors may contribute to decisions about interdisciplinary research and how such actions might then affect individual careers and institutional strategies. In fact, though we focus here on women in academic research, we believe that the arguments we propose may, in some cases, also resonate with men as well as with scholars in minority groups.
Admittedly, our approach is exploratory, and our data are sparse. But, even with these limitations, we see this as an important first step toward understanding the preferences women might have for interdisciplinarity and why. We also see this as a critical point in the policy process to identify what consequences -- both intended and unintended -- might come from twinning the goals of expanding interdisciplinary science with those of increasing scientific diversity, and what they could pose for the individuals, their institutions, and the larger enterprise. Our hope is to catalyze research science practice and policy discussions about the subject of diversity and interdisciplinarity; thus, we intentionally set out to raise more questions than we answer. We want to examine the proposition, not start with an assumption.
We found only one large-scale empirical study concerned with the connection between gender and interdisciplinarity. In 1998, Evaluation Associates Ltd, a consulting firm, conducted an assessment of interdisciplinary research in higher education institutions in Britatin. The analysis of responses from 5,505 researchers in British higher education institutions indicates that greater percentages of women than men report participating in interdisciplinary research at almost every age and discipline. The differences in rates of participation for junior faculty are particularly significant as British women report spending approximately half of their time on interdisciplinary research and men spend only a third.
Another study, published in Gender and Society by Erin Leahey in 2006, used a sample of 196 sociology and 222 linguistics faculty members to examine a related issue of specialization. She found with statistical significance that those who specialize tend to produce more publications, and that women tend to specialize less than men. While researchers could theoretically specialize in an interdisciplinary area or interdiscipline, Alan Porter and colleagues found in their 2007 paper that interdisciplinary researchers also tend to be less specialized: single interdiscipline specialists are rare.
In order to examine what might be behind these differences, we broke down the concept of interdisciplinarity into four modes of practice. For each, we briefly consider theoretical arguments and empirical data related to gender-based participation in these different interdisciplinary ways of working. We start with a model of individual interdisciplinarity, and proceed through three different collaborative models which involve in step other individual researchers, other intellectual fields, and other institutional communities.
The first category of interdisciplinarity occurs when individuals make cognitive connections among disciplines, and thus "cross-fertilize." Researchers who use this approach single-handedly knit together ideas, approaches and information from different fields and/or disciplines. In the UK study, women clearly pursue independent lines of interdisciplinary inquiry more readily than men: women who operate as lone scientists (as opposed to working in formal or ad hoc teams) reported spending 44 percent of their time on interdisciplinary research, while male lone scientists only reported spending 33 percent. Although these data do not indicate definitively why women would have a greater tendency to cross-fertilize, other research suggests possible avenues of explanation. Cross-fertilization requires the processing of the languages and epistemologies of other fields as well as establishing connections among them. Recent studies in cognitive psychology have shown that whereas males tend to look for abstract and theoretical arguments, dissociating it from any distracting information, females are more apt to make connections between language, ideas and the larger context.
The second category of interdisciplinary work -- "team-collaboration" -- occurs by virtue of several individuals working together. Here researchers collaborate in formal or informal teams or networks that span across fields and/or disciplines. Evaluation Associates found that most interdisciplinary research occurred in ad hoc teams (53 percent), with lower levels conducted by formal teams (29 percent) and by lone researchers (18 percent). Beyond some preliminary findings from research by one of us (Rhoten) that suggest that females -- particularly younger females -- may have on average slightly more interdisciplinary collaborators than men, we have not found any other empirical data relating to the role of gender in the composition of interdisciplinary research teams. Potential lines of reasoning for why women might be expected to have a proclivity for teamwork come from the psychology of gender literature, which portrays females as being more inclined toward group work and males more likely to prefer independent work.
The third category -- "field creation" -- involves the bridging of existing research domains to form new disciplines, subdisciplines or “interdisciplines” at their intersections. Early data from a study by Rhoten and other colleagues of Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) programs indicate that enrollment rates of female students in new interdisciplines tend to be higher than the enrollment rates of female students in cognate disciplines. For example, in 2003, female students represented 45 percent of the total graduate enrollment across all earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences; 55 percent across biological sciences; and, 22 percent across engineering. By comparison, the ratio of female students averages 57 percent and climbs as high as 80 percent for this sample of IGERT programs concentrating on emerging interdisciplines in the area of environmental systems (e.g., those focused on the intersection of earth systems, ecosystem management, and environmental science and engineering). Later stage career data from the University of California at Berkeley also suggest that a great proportion of female versus male faculty may be bridging fields to build new areas of research: 26 percent of female faculty in STEM fields as opposed to 15 percent of males hold joint appointments, according to the National Research Council. Some scholars of gender and science studies proffer that female scientists may be attracted to new fields because they are less established in their status, hierarchical and competitive structure than older disciplines, allowing for greater flexibility and opportunity for intellectual exploration and knowledge revaluation.
The fourth category -- "problem orientation" -- entails interdisciplinary research that is oriented toward problem solving, especially "real world" questions that confront society. Researchers with an interdisciplinary problem-orientation engage in topics that not only draw on multiple fields but also serve multiple stakeholders and broader missions outside of academe. Literature from both psychology as well as women studies documents consistent differences in the concerns that appeal to males versus females, with the former generally tending to be more interested in things and theories one might associate with basic science and the latter in people and problems often aligned with applied research. Currently, beyond personal narratives, there is no real systematic evidence to test the relationship of gender to this category of interdisciplinarity. At best, we can glean from the aforementioned sample of IGERTs that only those programs self-classified as "problem-oriented" (versus "tool-oriented" or "vision-oriented") are majority female enrolled. Likewise, and again at a later career stage, we know that the joint appointments that STEM women hold at Berkeley tend to be in "business, biology, law, city and regional planning, economics, and environmental science" -- mostly fields that connect directly with society.
While more research is needed to reject or support the hypothesis, these preliminary observations and summary explanations point to the possibility that women might have a predilection for interdisciplinarity in each of these four categories of activity and for different reasons. However, even if the proposition were right and interdisciplinary research presents a promising angle by which to engage women and diversify the scientific enterprise, can it or will it be a rewarding career trajectory for women and other underrepresented minorities to follow in the current academic environment? Can and will interdisciplinary work lead those who choose it to find and retain productive and innovative positions? We are concerned by findings such as those reported by Leahey about the lower productivity of non-specialists, and by the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where faculty who described their research as "non-mainstream" responded more negatively to all questions about the quality of their workplace than their colleagues doing "mainstream" research.
On the one hand, National Academies reports like "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future" emphasize the importance of interdisciplinary research to scientific development and national competitiveness. On the other hand, reports such as "Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research," also coming out of the National Academies, identify "promotion criteria" as the top impediment to the future of interdisciplinarity research, pointing first and foremost to the problem that the potentially unique contributions of a researcher’s interdisciplinary work may not be sufficient enough to compensate for what is likely to be his/her lower output of disciplinary research. Good interdisciplinary work requires not only depth but also breadth of knowledge across different disciplines, the pursuit of which inevitably takes time away from the (re)production of the type of narrowly focused research in subdisciplines favored by the contemporary tenure system.
We recognize that tenure prospects can be uncertain for all young professors. Yet, we also believe that, far from fully restructuring the system, there are additional steps around scientific risk, review and reward that can be (and in a few cases, have been) taken so as to move beyond interdisciplinary revolution into interdisciplinary reform, and thereby not just attract but actually retain women in the interdisciplinary programs for which they seem to demonstrate preference and our institutions report to be invested. As an example of progress in this area, one might look to the Guidance for Interdisciplinary Hiring and Career Development recently released by the Council for Environmental Deans and Directors. Despite the hype and hope for interdisciplinary research, it cannot be considered ethical or even practical to draw women into science using interdisciplinary research as the lure, if simultaneously systems of work, evaluation and promotion are not reformed to reward them for taking up the challenge.
Diana Rhoten and Stephanie Pfirman
Diana Rhoten is founder and director of the Knowledge Institutions program at the Social Science Research Council. Her current research interests include the social and technical conditions as well as the individual and organizational implications of different approaches to knowledge production and dissemination. Rhoten is principal investigator of a National Science Foundation-sponsored study of Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training programs.
Stephanie Pfirman is Alena Wels Hirschorn '58 and Martin Hirschorn Professor in Environmental and Applied Sciences Professor and chair of environmental science at Barnard College, and co-principal investigator of the NSF-sponsored Advancing Women in the Sciences initiative of the Columbia Earth Institute.
In a January 8 article,Inside Higher Ed profiled former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee’s record on issues important to education. While Andy Guess gave a sterling summary of his record on issues specifically related to higher education, professors need to take a closer look at Huckabee’s record on the teaching of evolution in the public schools -- an issue that is not specific to higher education, but that ultimately can have a major impact on science education policy and the nature of intellectual debate in the United States.
Contrasting starkly with the New York mayor’s recognition of the importance of evolution to public science education, Huckabee has adopted a deplorably dismissive line of response when asked about his adherence to creationism saying, "I'm not sure what in the world that has to do with being president of the United States." However, a nonpartisan coalition, which includes 11 Nobel laureates and the editors-in-chief of Science and Nature among its impressive list of signatories, believes that such issues have a great deal to do with the office of the chief executive. In fact, they are calling for a debate between presidential candidates on science and technology. John Rennie, editor-in-chief of Scientific American and a member of the coalition's steering committee, explained, "Matters of science and technology underpin every important issue affecting the future of the United States. It's crucial for the nation's welfare that our next president be someone with an understanding of vital science, a willingness to listen to scientific counsel, and a capacity for solid, critical thinking.”
Apropos to the willingness of a potential president to listen to scientific counsel, during the same week as Huckabee’s triumph in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, the National Academy of Sciences and The Institute of Medicine, chartered by Congress to advise the government of scientific matters, released Science, Evolution, and Creationism, a book that affirms the current scientific understanding and solid acceptance of evolution and warns against undermining science curricula with nonscientific material such as creationism under any of its various guises. And, although the former Arkansas governor now attempts to deflect attention from his support of creationism with lines like, "I'm not planning on writing the curriculum for an eighth grade science book," exposing public school students to creationism is exactly what Huckabee has proposed numerous times, and with more explicit language than George W. Bush’s comments on the teaching of Intelligent Design, which drew fire from scientists in 2005.
Student: Many schools in Arkansas are failing to teach students about evolution according to the educational standards of our state. Since it is against these standards to teach creationism, how would you go about helping our state educate students more sufficiently for this? Huckabee: Are you saying some students are not getting exposure to the various theories of creation? Student (stunned): No, of evol … well, of evolution specifically. It’s a biological study that should be educated [taught], but is generally not. Moderator: Schools are dodging Darwinism? Is that what you … ? Student: Yes. Huckabee: I’m not familiar that they’re dodging it. Maybe they are. But I think schools also ought to be fair to all views. Because, frankly, Darwinism is not an established scientific fact. It is a theory of evolution, that’s why it’s called the theory of evolution.
Huckabee’s claimed ignorance that schools were failing to teach evolution properly is quite curious given a previous exchange with another young Arkansan on an earlier installment of the same PBS program only one year before:
Student: Goal 2.04 of the Biology Benchmark Goals published by the Arkansas Department of Education in May of 2002 indicates that students should examine the development of the theory of biological evolution. Yet many students in Arkansas that I have met … have not been exposed to this idea. What do you believe is the appropriate role of the state in mandating the curriculum of a given course? Huckabee: I think that the state ought to give students exposure to all points of view. And I would hope that that would be all points of view and not only evolution. I think that they also should be given exposure to the theories not only of evolution but to the basis of those who believe in creationism....
As Guess reported, Huckabee does concede that we should teach evolution “as a theory”. However, the candidate’s misuse of the word “theory” incorrectly implies that evolution is scientifically controversial. His continued vocal rejection of evolution; his use of the creationist pseudo-argument “I wasn’t there”; his recent ill-informed quip about “anyone who wants to believe they are the descendants of a primate”; and his egregious equation of acceptance of evolution with necessary rejection of the existence of God, do not speak well of his attitude toward nor his understanding of science. These sentiments send a message to the nation’s students that this man, who could lead the nation, thinks that the scientists, science teachers, science curricula, and science textbooks are all wrong.
Finally, the teaching of creationism alongside of evolution in public schools for which Huckabee has called has been repeatedly rejected by the nation’s courts. The oath of office obliges the president to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” It is unacceptable for a presidential candidate to advocate such clearly unconstitutional educational policy. University scientists, professors who train science teachers, and others who care about the quality of science education ought to oppose candidates who disparage evolutionary science and who condone the injection of religious doctrine into the public school science curriculum.
Jason R. Wiles
A native Arkansan, Jason R. Wiles is manager of the Evolution Education Research Center at McGill University and a new member of the biology faculty at Syracuse University. He is co-editor of a recent special issue of the McGill Journal of Education that focuses on the teaching and learning of evolution.
Submitted by Chad Orzel on August 4, 2008 - 4:00am
I know nothing about art or music.
OK, that's not entirely true -- I know a little bit here and there. I just have no systematic knowledge of art or music (by which I mean fine art and classical music). I don't know Beethoven from Bach, Renaissance from Romantics. I'm not even sure those are both art terms.
Despite the sterling reputation of the department, I never took an art history class when I was an undergraduate at Williams College, nor did I take any music classes. They weren't specifically required, and I was a physics major. My schedule was full of math and science classes, and I didn't feel I had time for six hours a week of looking at slides. It's a significant gap in my education.
Given my line of work, this is occasionally ... it doesn't rise to the level of a liability, but it's awkward. I'm a professor at a liberal arts college, putting me solidly in the "Intellectual" class, and there's a background assumption that anyone with as much education as I have will know something about history and philosophy and literature and art and classical music. I read enough to have literature covered, even if my knowledge is a little patchy, and I took enough classes in college to have a rough grasp of history and philosophy, but art and music are hopeless. When those subjects come up in conversation, I just smile and nod and change the topic as soon as possible. On those occasions when I'm forced to admit my ignorance (or, worse yet, the fact that I don't even like classical music), my colleagues tend to look a little sideways at me, and I can feel myself drop slightly in their estimation. Not knowing anything about those subjects makes me less of an Intellectual to most people in the academy.
I was reminded of this by a recent blog posting at Republic of T, which puts into stark relief what is missing from that list of background assumptions: math and science.
Intellectuals and academics are just assumed to have some background knowledge of the arts, and not knowing those things can count against you. Ignorance of math and science is no obstacle, though. I have seen tenured professors of the humanities say -- in public faculty discussions, no less -- "I'm just no good at math," without a trace of shame. There is absolutely no expectation that Intellectuals know even basic math.
Ignorance of math can even be a source of a perverse sort of pride-- the bit of the blog post that reminded me of this is a call-back to an earlier post in which he relates his troubles with math, and how he exploited a loophole in his college rules to graduate without passing algebra. To me that anecdote reads as more proud than shameful-- less "I'm not good at math" and more "I'm clever enough to circumvent the rules."
It's not entirely without shame, of course. In the paragraph immediately after the algebra anecdote, the author gets a little defensive:
Or is it worth considering that perhaps not everyone can "do" algebra, trig or calculus? Is it worth considering that perhaps there are even some smart people who aren't great at math and/or science?... [A]re we to force every peg, round or square, into that hole at the expense of forcing students, who may be gifted in other equally important subjects, to drop out after a long series of demoralizing failures?
This is the exact same chippiness I hear from physics majors who are annoyed at having to take liberal arts classes in order to graduate. The only difference is that students seeking to avoid math or science classes can expect to get a sympathetic hearing from much of the academy, where the grousing of physics majors is written off as whining by nerds who badly need to expand their narrow minds.
In fairness, it’s worth noting that some academics are against mandatory liberal arts instruction for science majors, and so are consistent in allowing the educated to avoid some subjects. But the avoidance of math and science is a common and accepted part of many core curricula, and this attitude gets my back up.
I'm not exaggerating when I say that I think the lack of respect for math and science is one of the largest unacknowledged problems in today's society. And it starts in the academy -- somehow, we have moved to a place where people can consider themselves educated while remaining ignorant of remarkably basic facts of math and science. If I admit an ignorance of art or music, I get sideways looks, but if I argue for taking a stronger line on math and science requirements, I'm being unreasonable. The arts are essential, but Math Is Hard, and I just need to accept that not everybody can handle it.
This has real consequences for society, and not just in the usual "without math, we won't be able to maintain our technical edge, and the Chinese will crush us in a few years" sense. You don't need to look past the front section of the paper. Our economy is teetering because people can't hack the math needed to understand how big a loan they can afford. We're not talking about vector calculus or analytical geometry here -- we're mired in an economic crisis because millions of our citizens can't do arithmetic. And that state of affairs has come about in no small part because the people running the academy these days have no personal appreciation of math, and thus no qualms about coddling innumeracy.
I'm not entirely sure what to do about it, alas. I half want to start calling bullshit on this -- to return the sideways looks when colleagues in the humanities and social sciences confess ignorance of science. I want to get in people's faces when they off-handedly dismiss math and science, in the same way that they get in people's faces for comments that hint at racial or gender insensitivity. I suspect that all this would accomplish is to get me a reputation as "that asshole who won't shut up about math," though, and people will stop inviting me to parties.
Sadly, I don't know what other solution there is. It simply should not be acceptable for people who are ignorant of math and science to consider themselves Intellectuals. Somehow, we need to move away from where we are and toward a place where confusing Darwin with Dawkins or Feynman with Faraday carries the same intellectual stigma as confusing Bach with Beethoven or Rembrandt with Reubens.
Chad Orzel is an associate professor of physics at Union College, in Schenectady, N.Y. This essay is adapted from a posting on his blog, Uncertain Principles. He is currently working on a book explaining quantum mechanics to a general audience -- through imaginary conversations with his dog.
When we were in college some 40 years ago, neither of us ever had an African-American or Latino professor. Unfortunately, even today many students at major American research universities have the same experience. Departments in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics -- the STEM fields -- are typically the least diverse. Not only is that situation dismaying for those of us who lived through the civil rights movement, but it is also a big policy problem for our country.
At a time when STEM fields are increasingly important to our national security, health, and competitiveness we are neither supporting the research nor producing the diverse pool of scientists and engineers we need to fuel our future.
Programs to broaden the pool of STEM students are being scrutinized, and some have been eliminated. Beyond the obvious logic of numbers -- the more people in a field, the more likely it is that talented practitioners will appear -- research suggests that a diversity of perspectives enriches science and makes engineering more responsive to a global pool of clients. For example, Anthony Lising Antonio, et al. reported on a study of college-student discussion groups in an August 2004 issue of Psychological Science. According to the research, students working in a more diverse group setting were influenced by the different perspectives of minority participants and demonstrated enhanced complex thought processes as a result.
This is especially relevant in the STEM fields, where students are often required to work collaboratively and where thinking about a problem in new and different ways is central to developing solutions. In a friend-of-the-court brief pertaining to the Supreme Court cases on affirmative action at the University of Michigan, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, DuPont, IBM, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering submitted an argument documenting that "the importance of diversity is heightened in the fields of science and engineering."
As an engine of our economy, the STEM disciplines and the diversity of that workforce should give us great pause. Although only 5 percent of American workers were employed in STEM occupations as of 2006, their impact on the national and global economies is disproportionately large.
In both academe and the workforce, those fields look the least like America, with much smaller proportions of women, African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos. Although the overall student population has become more diverse, at the undergraduate level members of these minority groups are underrepresented among all STEM majors, with women underrepresented in many STEM fields. At the graduate level, there is an additional problem: a declining percentage of U.S. citizens. In many departments of physics, computer science, and engineering, it is difficult to find a graduate student who is a U.S. citizen. Across the STEM fields, the situation for faculty members is even more dire.
To achieve better representation in our colleges' STEM departments, we must deal with three issues.
First, we must clearly articulate the educational case for diversity, showing how students and society benefit from it. After that, we can determine how best to reach diversity: What policies should be altered, what practices endorsed, what structural changes made, and what resources committed? In biomedical research, for instance, we must not assume that whites and males are typical of all patients and develop treatments only for them; when scientists who are not white males are present, that assumption is more likely to be challenged.
Second, we need to think more holistically about diversity in STEM, including the need for everyone on our campuses -- undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty and staff members -- to be exposed to diverse ideas and worldviews. For example, in the high-tech industry, the composition of work teams now mirrors the consumer market for company products. No such practices pervade STEM units on campus, although research in many areas ultimately impacts consumers, and many students and faculty will someday operate in the private sector. To reach this goal, we may need to re-examine functions like admissions, financial aid, and faculty recruitment and advancement. What are the criteria by which decisions are made in each case? By reassigning accountability for those functions to a central office, promising and creative practices can be shared throughout the institution, with rewards for STEM units that are diversifying. A campus-wide repository of data, as well as college-specific tools, for monitoring and managing levels of diversity, is essential. Innovative examples can be found in many universities -- Harvard University on faculty searches, the University of California at Berkeley on undergraduate support, Georgia Tech on promotion and tenure -- which honor excellence while seeking to diversify participation in STEM education and careers.
Third, we must acknowledge that stereotypes still matter, and that they affect perceptions of quality and expectations for performance -- regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity. Studies show that humans use irrelevant external cues and group attributes in our judgments of people -- noting, for example, the race or ethnicity of a doctor before evaluating the extent of her medical knowledge. Assuming that diversity on a campus is just the result of affirmative action or special pleading reveals a different kind of bias. The Supreme Court has ruled that although colleges can consider race/ethnicity as one factor in developing policies such considerations may not carry undue weight relative to other aspects of individual qualifications. Opponents of affirmative-action programs can always claim that their emphasis on group characteristics -- race and sex -- override the required focus on individual characteristics. It seems illogical to operate special programs for the numerical majority -- women and members of minority groups. But special programs remain a valuable source of “intelligence” in guiding the transition to institution-wide approaches. Only leaders, including presidents and trustees, can begin institutional transformation in support of diversity. Though such broad change needs to start at the top, it must also be embraced and carried out at all levels.
So-called race-neutral programs -- created in response to new laws that undercut the use of affirmative action or consider socio-economic status as a proxy for race and ethnicity -- are increasingly advocated by the federal government. But they cannot be the only policy tool used to right that moral wrong. Instead, we must move toward strategies to transform an entire institution -- to serve the needs of all students and faculty members, regardless of discipline, not just those with certain characteristics. Even those who decry affirmative action should applaud an institution-wide approach that gives students what they need to succeed. Yet, this is not the same as providing “equal” treatment.
Judicial retreat on diversity in primary and secondary education is making it more difficult to diversify institutions of higher education. For example, in spring 2007 the Supreme Court struck down voluntary local strategies to desegregate schools in Seattle and Jefferson County, Kentucky. The rulings asserted that American society is color blind and the playing field is level -- assertions that are both naïve and self-deceptive.
Americans born with the “right” sex, race, or social class still receive advantages at birth. And residence patterns can compound those advantages, as some public schools have the money to buy new technology and hire seasoned educators while others do not. Data from the College Board show that SAT scores are closely linked with zip codes. In the words of Isabel V. Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, “At virtually every level, education in America tends to perpetuate rather than compensate for existing inequalities.” She notes, “It takes about five generations for the advantages and disadvantages of family background to die out in the United States.”
Meanwhile, the fact remains that the United States is already importing talent and outsourcing technical jobs. Although that may make sense for our society in the short run, it is risky policy in the long run. Sooner or later, a white male science, engineering, or medical-school graduate will sue his alma mater -- not because he was denied admission to a special program, but because his education in a homogeneous environment left him ill equipped to function in his chosen career. His lack of cultural competence will have impaired his contributions to the productivity of a diverse team, to satisfy a diverse client market, or to treat a diverse group of patients.
Let us not deceive ourselves. The legacy of Brown v. Board of Education may be in danger in the courts, and thus race-based affirmative action may no longer represent a viable national strategy for providing educational opportunity to all Americans. But our colleges and universities have an obligation to teach science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to a racially and ethnically diverse group of U.S. citizens -- for our own good.
Daryl E. Chubin and Shirley M. Malcom
Daryl E. Chubin is director of the Center for Advancing Science and Engineering Capacity at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Shirley M. Malcom is head of AAAS Education and Human Resources Programs.