The New Scientific Method: Identity Politics

The Biden administration is considering a laudable major expansion in funding for scientific agencies to shore up America’s research base. The money will help, but it doesn’t obviate the need to scrutinize who will be leading the government’s scientific efforts, as many of us did during President Trump’s term in office. The current emphasis in academic hiring on affirmative action shouldn’t be of concern here. We should expect that merit and accomplishment will guide promotion to the highest levels of scientific leadership. Even if the Biden administration may appear more in touch with the concerns of the scientific community, it isn’t excused from the duty to appoint qualified people to leadership positions.

Many don’t realize that the largest funder of physical science in the country isn’t the National Science Foundation, whose 2022 budget the Biden administration has proposed to increase by 20%, but the Energy Department. Here, too, the Biden administration is proposing a major funding increase.

The DOE Office of Science’s $7 billion budget, set to rise by $400 million, supports research in high-energy and nuclear physics with large accelerators, materials physics with X-ray synchrotrons, fusion and advanced scientific computers, and runs 10 national laboratories employing thousands of researchers.

President Biden has nominated

Asmeret Asefaw Berhe,

a soil biogeochemist from the University of California, Merced, to lead the Office of Science. Ms. Berhe will be the first black woman to lead the science office, happily lending a more diverse face to science in this country.

Ms. Berhe’s research program on soil chemistry, exploring the capture of carbon dioxide, is relevant to climate-change policy. But her research expertise isn’t in any of the Office of Science’s major programs, and she has no experience as a scientific administrator and minimal experience with the Energy Department itself. Past directors have been established researchers from one of the major fields supported by the department, or they have administered large private laboratories like Bell Labs—in line with the demands of the job. It is hard not to wonder whether Ms. Berhe is the right choice for a leadership role at the DOE.

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A science leader’s specific research background may not be as important as other intellectual strengths, which are hard to judge from a distance. Nevertheless, when Mr. Trump made nominations to scientific leadership positions, many scientists, myself included, were quick to critique those candidates whose expertise and experience didn’t seem well matched to the task at hand—from

Scott Pruitt

and then

Andrew Wheeler

at the Environmental Protection Agency to

Scott Atlas

as coronavirus adviser and

Jim Bridenstine

at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It is important that we be willing to ask the same questions of this administration.

Down the road from the Department of Energy, the prestigious National Academy of Sciences announced in late April its new class of 120 members, elected from all fields of science. The NAS nominally provides advice to the government on scientific questions, from national security to education, but it is primarily an honorific organization. It devotes a large fraction of its time and effort to selecting its own honorees, which was one of the reasons future Nobel laureate

Richard Feynman

tried to resign from the organization in 1959.

The first female president of the academy,

Marcia McNutt,

has built a team that has tried over the past few years to shed the NAS’s image of white male elitism. This year in particular has seen a strong push for diversity. Remarkably, almost exactly half of the new members—59 of 120—are women. Nine black scientists are also new members; the NAS says there had never been more than three in a previous class.

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Lest anyone wonder whether the demographic composition of the new membership was planned, NAS home secretary

Susan Wessler

made clear that it was. Each of 31 different fields can put forward recommendations for new members. From there, Ms. Wessler told Science Magazine, “we assign slots based on the diversity of the lists of nominees that get forwarded.” Sections presenting more-diverse lists get extra slots. Then the next year, the number of slots allocated to the sections depends on how successful they were at picking diverse candidates.

To be more specific, Ms. Wessler added: “If they used [their slots] to pick a bunch of white guys from Harvard, they get penalized.”

This is a remarkable statement. Much as one might bemoan the nonrepresentative nature of the NAS, not only in race and sex but in geography and institutional affiliation, at least one could hope that the dominant selection criterion for this most meritorious title would be merit itself. If the selectors in a given section find that the best candidates put forward in a given year are white and male, will they feel compelled to pass over these candidates for fear of losing slots in the next year’s process?

I can’t help but think that this explicit bias might ultimately hurt NAS members who are women, racial minorities or both by feeding the suspicion that qualities other than accomplishment led to their election.

Even raising these questions is likely to bring on a chorus of condemnation, and if I hadn’t retired from my academic position, I probably would be much more hesitant. They bring to mind a statement in November by

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Dorian Abbot,

an associate professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago. “Let’s fight bias in science by working hard to reduce bias, not by introducing it,” he wrote. “Let’s treat each applicant for conferences, fellowships, and faculty positions as an individual worthy of dignity and respect. Let’s treat all applicants fairly by judging them only on the basis of their ability and promise as scientists.”

In another time, Mr. Abbot’s sentiments might have been applauded. Instead, more than 100 students and postdoctoral fellows at Chicago submitted a letter to the geophysics faculty asking that he be punished because his ideas “threaten the safety and belonging of all of underrepresented groups within the department.” While this response reflects the turmoil in academia today, we must continue to insist that those people at the highest levels of American scientific leadership represent the best and brightest among us. We’re counting on them.

Mr. Krauss, a theoretical physicist, is president of the Origins Project Foundation. His most recent book is “The Physics of Climate Change.”

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