Is STEM Being Politicized? 

“To me, science and justice exist in opposition to each other,” said James Battle, an assistant professor of sociology in a video for the Science and Justice Research Center (SJRC) at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In the same video, Derek Padilla, a physicist, explains that science and justice are about “being more than just in your silo as a science student.” These scenes are the face of the growing politicization of science.

Defenders will say these scientists are doing their duty as good citizens. In fact, they fail to answer the question: What is the proper interface between science and public interest? Should science stand apart from politics, acting as a source of dispassionate advice to society? Or should science be harnessed for explicitly political aims? The former apolitical approach is clearly better, as the latter foments skepticism and mistrust.

Even the authors of the SJRC’s 2019-2020 annual report express concern that “at an increasing rate, many forms of scientific evidence are met . . . with skepticism and mistrust.” Oblivious to their own contribution to that problem, they explain their “vision of good science . . . strives towards institutional change.” Their vision is blind to the consequences of defining science as “good” only when conforming to a political agenda. Good science, in reality, strives towards truth in a rational and objective manner, where the merit of scientific conclusions mitigates skepticism and mistrust.

Striving towards institutional change is more akin to political activism, but that is likely the point. The founding director of the SJRC, sociology professor Jenny Reardon, is trained in molecular biology, feminism, and critical race studies. The authors of Critical Race Theory state plainly that all scholarship is political activism and meritocracy is a myth. If this ideology is brought to scientific training, then why should the SJRC expect anything but increasing skepticism and mistrust of so-called scientific evidence?

Unfortunately, the SJRC was not established by a fringe contingent of political ideologues working alone. The center reports that it “grew out of the success of the Science & Justice Training Program (SJTP), initially supported by the National Science Foundation (2012-2014).” The program, they explain, is unique in broadening “the scope of ethics education in science and engineering to include and build new sites and practices for pursuing social justice.” 

Why is this politicization happening? Certainly, these ideologues want to spread their ideologies, but there is another and more immediate motive: funding. The sciences are where the money is.

The National Endowment for the Humanities, for example, has funded a cumulative total of about $4.7 billion in grants over its half-century of existence. In that same time, the total federal support for scientific research is at nearly $900 billion—almost 200 times greater. It is only natural, therefore, that race and social justice ideologues have intruded into the notably greener pastures of STEM education and research, camouflaging themselves with beautiful words such as diversity, inclusion, and equity—DIE, an appropriate acronym.

The division of science at UC Santa Cruz has committed itself to the DIE initiatives. They are now promoting “social justice and equity across intersections of race, ethnicity, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, faith, abilities/disabilities, age, socioeconomic background, ancestry, national origin, and all other identities.” How administrators manage to ensure equity when taking an indefinite set of variables into account is not exactly known. Indeed, it is not likely to be possible.

Moreover, when a barrier to equity exists, such as academic standards, what is to be done? In the case of UC Santa Cruz, faculty spent summer 2021 conducting Project REAL, which stands for “Redesigning Equity and Advancing Learning.” The project was “designed to provide faculty with a research-based program to engage in . . . course redesign to improve teaching and learning and contribute to equitable outcomes for students at UC Santa Cruz.”

Contributing to equitable outcomes, however, necessarily lowers academic standards, creating graduates unprepared for work outside of the university. It also leaves employers in the dark as to who the truly meritorious job applicants are, incentivizing employers to disregard higher education as an indicator of merit. These factors combined will lead to the death of the academy, as the general public comes to regard higher education as being of little to no help in career advancement.

Clearly, STEM is being politicized. You need to look no further than UC Santa Cruz to witness this occurrence, but look further anyway. The abundance of these policies today might come as a horrific surprise. The outcomes of these policies tomorrow will be far worse, but not too surprising.

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About Mason Goad

Mason Goad is a junior researcher with the National Association of Scholars, investigating DEI in STEM education and research. He can be contacted on Twitter (@GoadMason) or via email at goad@nas.org. 

Photo: Romy Arroyo Fernandez/NurPhoto via Getty Images