Do not discriminate against competence


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To mark a thirtieth anniversary the prestigious journal Angewandte Chemie published an invited essay on the current state of the discipline by the respected senior researcher Tomas Hudlicky. In his wide ranging, multi-faceted piece, the more technical parts of which I don't understand and the parts on scientific publication I fully agree with, he included one short paragraph on (“positive”) discrimination stating:

The rise and emphasis on hiring practices that suggest or even mandate equality in terms of absolute numbers of people in specific subgroups is counter-productive if it results in discrimination against the most meritorious candidates.

This is a simple statement of undisputable fact.

Derek Lowe of Science Translational Medicine dug up another, older statement of Hudlicky’s: “in the past, the U.S. benefitted immensely from short- or long-term interactions with foreign scientists. […] cannot be well served by restricting or even eliminating access to the U.S. on the basis of their religion, ethnicity, or country of origin.” and tries to construe a contradiction between the two in his blog comment.

He’s wrong. Not restricting contenders and allowing them to compete on equal terms is not at all the same as mandating all subgroups to be numerically represented in academia in the same proportion as in the general public outside.

As a result of the predictable furore the essay was ignominiously withdrawn. Search engines are full of pages and pages of condemnation but, were it not for one single upright documentarist (now two), the original and object of contention would be lost to posterity.

In the uproar of the (self-)righteous two editors were sacked and two respected and invited referees were excluded from further contribution. Any debate about the statement on its merits was absent or suppressed. This preeminence of attitude over content comes at a time when fraud and falsification in the scientific literature have risen to an unprecedented height. There need not be a connection, but if not it's a strange coincidence.

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