Researchers in communist China are less hamstrung by ideology than their counterparts in the U.S. Will the Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action improve things?
There are many reasons to oppose the sort of race-based affirmative action that the Supreme Court recently struck down at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. Most Americans find judging people by their skin color morally repugnant; Harvard’s policies cruelly stereotyped Asian-Americans as impersonable to keep their numbers down; and race-based policies replace the dream of a colorblind society with an unhealthy obsession with group identities—to name a few.
But one particular reason deserves more attention: It’s good for national security. The high court’s ruling could better equip America to thwart China’s effort to lead the world by overtaking the West in science and technology.
Though the U.S. has long ruled those realms, China is catching up fast. Washington has begun to address this problem in recent years. But as former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and artificial intelligence expert Yll Bajraktari warned in a Foreign Affairs piece last year, it’s “hard to say with any confidence” that the U.S. is “better positioned or organized for the long-term contest” with China than it was a few years ago. “It is entirely possible to imagine a future where systems designed, built, and based in China dominate world markets, extending Beijing’s sphere of influence and providing it with a military advantage over the United States.”
Unlike the former Soviet Union, whose scientific prowess was limited to a handful of domains, China has emerged as a genuine rival to America. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute reported this year that China leads the U.S. in research on 37 of 44 critical technologies, including advanced aircraft engines, electric batteries, machine learning and synthetic biology. In a recent essay in Foreign Affairs, Dan Wang, an expert on China’s technology landscape, wrote that “China now rivals Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan in its mastery of the electronics supply chain.” In 2007, the Chinese added less than 4% of the value-added costs of iPhones made in that country. Now it’s more than 25%.
China leads the world in modern infrastructure such as high-voltage power lines, high-speed rail and 5G telecom networks. It controls most solar-panel production, houses the world’s largest electric-car battery company, CATL, and is racing to catch up with the West in high-end semiconductors. In Mr. Wang’s telling, Shenzhen has come to resemble the San Francisco Bay Area, “where university researchers, entrepreneurs, workers, and investors continually rub elbows.”
Given this challenge, you might imagine that America would re-emphasize the principles of objectivity and merit that made it the world’s leading scientific innovator. You would be mistaken.
Where it once was taken for granted that expanding knowledge was more important than a scientist’s sex or skin color, anyone adhering to that approach in the U.S. now must fend off charges that it is racist, patriarchal, colonial, or a tool of oppression. As a group of 29 scientists and academics contended in a recent paper for the Journal of Controversial Ideas, scientific progress in the West “is being hindered by a new, alarming clash between liberal epistemology and identity-based ideologies.”
Instead of fighting back, traditional gatekeeping institutions seem to have become part of the problem. In 2020 the Lancet published a paper on “Adopting an intersectionality framework to address power and equity in medicine.” Last year Nature published an article titled “Seeding an anti-racist culture at Scotland’s botanical gardens.” In 2018, Scientific American declared that “the idea of 2 sexes is overly simplistic.”
Thirty years ago, when the U.S. lead over all other countries seemed insurmountable, we could arguably afford to humor activists who believe in decolonizing pharmacology or insist that science is bigoted because cutting-edge research output doesn’t meet some race or sex quota. But China’s rapid rise—driven in part by a brutally meritocratic exam system that focuses on test scores—means we no longer have that luxury. You can be pretty sure that nobody in Beijing or Shanghai is wasting time on queer physics, feminist glaciology or indigenous science.
Ironically, scientists in communist China need to care less about ideology than their American counterparts. In the U.S., the National Institutes of Health requires some prospective researchers to demonstrate “a strong commitment to promoting diversity and inclusive excellence” in order to receive funding. The UC Davis School of Medicine now uses “adversity scores” to admit students. The University of California Los Angeles reportedly denied a psychology professor a job because students objected to his skepticism—expressed in a podcast—about the effectiveness of using diversity statements for hiring.
The U.S. will only find it harder to compete with China if activists and administrators are allowed to bully scientists into caring more about artificial diversity goals than about their work. To quote the 29 authors who stood up for merit, “for science to succeed, it must strive for the non-ideological pursuit of objective truth.”
If we’re lucky, last week’s Supreme Court decision brings us a step closer to this laudable goal. Any defeat for identity politics is a victory for American competitiveness.
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Appeared in the July 7, 2023, print edition as ‘Identity Politics Could Kill America’s Scientific Edge’.