Editorial, Opinion

Valuing equality over equity stunts science

On Nov. 24, The //National Post//’s Michael Higgins wrote an exclusive article titled “Minority professor denied grants because he hires on merit: ‘People are afraid to think.’” The article documents McGill chemistry professor Patanjali Kambhampati’s refusal to take part in equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) hiring practices. Instead, Kambhampati wrote that he would hire the “most qualified people” in the EDI section of his application for a $450,000 grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). In the //Post//’s article, he also decried that EDI and “woke culture” kill innovation, harm science, and disrupt society. Though Kambhampati’s stance on meritocracy is understandable, his choice to tank his own application for media attention speaks volumes about his commitment to science’s progress. While EDI hiring and practices alone are insufficient to dismantle systemic racism in scientific research, they are nonetheless essential; scientific innovation only improves when those at its forefront reflect the diversity of society. 

EDI hiring exists because institutions often filter out those who do not fit the old mould of the scientist archetype, such as women, people of colour, and lower-income individuals. Kambhampati’s racial colour-blindness shows the problem of individuals thinking that they alone can transcend systems of oppression. Institutions, for instance, can still perpetuate systemic racism even without overt racists within them. Valuing merit and skills is not mutually exclusive to EDI: Equitable hiring and practices allow everyone to have a fair shot in academia, not just those who fit individual professors’ subjective and flawed opinions.

Kambhampati spoke up to critique governmental agencies’ increasing implementation of EDI principles. EDI, though, is not some new dangerous revolution––it is about accessibility, which is far more compatible with enhancing current research methods. Kambhampati’s choice shows that he is willing to sacrifice scientific progress in favour of maintaining the status quo. His equality-over-equity approach continues to ostracize historically excluded groups from science. NSERC and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada’s EDI sections ask to proactively, intentionally, and carefully consider science’s blindspots when composing a team. Though Kambhampati commits himself to helping students of all backgrounds, his overwhelming desire to avoid discriminating against white men is suspect when EDI neither attacks them nor stops them from otherwise having myriad societal benefits. As Kambhampati suggests, EDI is not without its problems, like virtue-signalling. But these problems are not enough to dismiss it entirely—and so publicly.

Science does not and cannot exist in a social vacuum: Social issues affect science, and science affects social issues. Consider how science was, on one hand, manipulated to justify racial distinctions, colonialism, and the rigid gender binary, and on the other, the method used to disprove these myths. Consider also the eurocentric grounds for measuring systems like the body mass index (BMI), which has led to inadequate treatment toward people from other parts of the world. Clearly, science research has a cultural problem, one that prioritizes the interests of white, cisgender, straight, non-disabled men. 

It is researchers like Kambhampati who weaponize their “minority professor” identity and their own experiences of racism to rationalize their ideologies at the expense of minorities. Newspapers like the //National Post// and white commentators harp on exceptional cases like Kambhampati to dismiss equity initiatives, foregrounding a single racialized person’s experience to justify anti-woke rhetoric. Though Kambhampati fears self-censorship and “wokeism,” the more salient question is whether untenured faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students of colour could speak out to the same degree as a tenured professor who can arbitrarily sink potential funding.

Science principles itself on objectivity, but subjectively excluding people undermines the scientific method. Without fear, McGill’s Faculty of Science must follow McGill’s equitable hiring practices and stop their professors from stifling equitable science for cultural and academic capital.

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  1. Prof Kambhampati stated the he would hire the most qualified people who are interested in working in his field of research. Science research is extremely specialized and requires very specific skills and knowledge. In one project you may need someone who does theoretical calculations, someone who does experimental work and perhaps someone who works on improving the actual equipment. Interested individuals can contact you at ANY time to inquire about positions in your lab. When you have funding and a person who REALLY wants to work on that super-specialized area, you check their resume, you talk to them, you check their references then you make a decision. It could be that social science professors are inundated with requests to work on … whatever, and they can afford to choose members of their group according to DIE.
    I had a quick look at Prof. Kambhampati’s website, where his current team is profiled, as well as previous students. Did you?
    One last thought: When someone says “most qualified” why do you assume that all those people are “white, cisgender, straight, non-disabled men”?

  2. This article is exactly what is wrong with the current state of the social studies and humanities. Infected with rhetoric and referencing multiple articles purely based on rhetoric and one article on AI selection bias – entirely irrelevant to the discussion at hand. There is literally zero intellectual substance here. Fully based on intersectional and unproven (and often unprovable) presuppositions.

    Why on earth should we care what the colour of someone’s skin is, or their sexuality – or any other immutable characteristic? These are all meaningless. This is not the culture of acceptance and harmony that I wished for while watching Star Trek as a young child of an immigrant family.

    If this is where the future of higher education lies, I am horrified for the life my children will live.

  3. This author is really guzzling down the cool aid.

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