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Remarks to the Symposium on Diversity in the Sciences

Cambridge, Massachusetts

I think that the pursuit of diversity in science and engineering is profoundly important. There are actually, to my mind, three reasons, any one of which would be sufficient, to generate a major effort.

First, there is simple fairness. We are talking about careers that many of us believe are careers of tremendous excitement and opportunity. It is only right that such careers would be fully open to everyone. If we look at the progress of American higher education over the last century, and if we look at Harvard’s progress over the last century, it is very much a story of a widening of opportunity. A century ago, this was a university where New England gentlemen taught other New England – purported – gentlemen. Today, we strive, and I would say we strive with considerable success, to be an institution that is open to people of every race, to men and women alike, to people of every ethnic background, to people from every part of this country and the world, to people from backgrounds of privilege and people from backgrounds of deprivation. We do it because it is right. What we strive to do as an institution, it is essential that we also strive to do in every field, and particularly in fields that promise such important and fulfilling careers.

This does require us to be self-conscious. We know that many studies and research projects have been done in this area, and the results that I find most persuasive, that I find to be the research of the kind that everyone should know about, are the studies that, for example, look at the evaluations of orchestral recitals when there is a curtain, and when there is not a curtain. The people who evaluate those musicians are not in doubt that they are not prejudiced. They know that they are not prejudiced. But when they make their judgments with a curtain down, so they cannot see the person who is playing the violin or the clarinet, they systematically make judgments that favor women more, and favor minorities more, than when they see the people who are playing. This is actually true, by the way, or appears to be true, as I understand the literature, to a roughly equal extent whether it is men or women who are making the choice, or it is Caucasians or African Americans who are making the choice.

What I just said about orchestral auditions is particularly vivid because you have an image of that orchestral audition. But the same kind of empirical results come from studies of papers that are reviewed in blind ways, and papers that are reviewed in open ways, of job applications with names that suggest the applicant is likely to be an African American and job applications that suggest it is likely to be a Caucasian. One of the members of our Faculty sent the same resume to a large number of employers, only on some occasions it was “John’s” resume, and on some occasions it was “Jamayel’s” resume, and the results in terms of requests for follow-up interviews were very different. People interested in science believe in controlled experiments. These are such experiments, and they speak very powerfully to the need for us to make special efforts if we are to be fair.

There is a second reason why this topic is profoundly important, which should be important to us even if we are unconcerned with being fair. That is that we want to attract the most able people so we can have the most excellent programs of teaching and research; all of us do. There is a very simple principle: if you fish in a larger lake, the largest fish that you catch will be larger than if you fish in a smaller lake. It simply stands to reason.

If we close our minds to the consideration of a certain part of the population, or if, as a society, we fail to develop the talents of all members of our population, we are foreclosing opportunities for excellence in ways that do no one a favor, and in ways that advance no agenda. The more important we think the work in question is, the more important it is that we be as open and inclusive in considering everyone for every position. Surely, if one looks at the kind of competition that this country is facing, and will face, over the next several decades, from India, China, and other places; surely if we think about the potential for scientific understanding to be life saving, or life transforming, for millions of people in the life sciences, or through the application of new materials, or through the application of information technology; or if we think, as I suspect that most of us here do, that we are fortunate to live in a period when remarkable advancements in human understanding, for their own sake, are possible, and that is a reason why we are privileged in the period in which we are alive; if we think that, for any of these reasons, scientific careers are particularly important, that the progress of science is particularly important, then this a particularly important moment to make sure that we are widening our searches and our development efforts to be certain that we are fishing in as large a lake as possible. This point is only magnified if you share the concerns of many about an insufficiency of scientific person power as an important competitive challenge facing the United States moving forward.

There is a third reason why this subject is compelling that would be important even if the first two were not compelling. Here, I think, the evidence is probably less overwhelmingly established but it is actually pretty clear. That is, that better outcomes come from more diverse themes. One of the interesting features of the sociology of science over the last several decades – and there are people in this room who know much more about this than I – is that the number of co-authors per paper has significantly increased. It is true in the hard sciences, as laboratory instrumentation has become more widely shared. Certainly, in my field of economics, when I was a graduate student 25 years ago, most papers were single-authored, a few papers were double-authored, and quadruple-authored papers were unheard of. Today, single-authored papers are much more rare, and quadruple-authored papers are commonplace. I suspect you could find similar patterns in many other disciplines.

I hardly know just why that is. Some of it may have to do with better information communication. Some of it surely has to do with the complexity that calls for people with different perspectives to be brought together to address different problems. Here, the evidence in social psychology and the evidence in sociology strongly suggest that, when you bring groups of people with different perspectives together, you get much better outcomes than when you bring a group of people together all of whom have the same perspective. So here, too, we have an important rationale for diversity. The greater the diversity of the backgrounds of the people who go into science, the greater the diversity of the teams that will eventually form, and the greater the progress that will be made. To facilitate effective teams in what is an increasingly important collaborative endeavor; to attract the strongest people possible at a time when the work has never been more important; and to do the right thing: for all of these reasons, this effort is profoundly important.

As I suspect Dr. Evelynn Hammonds said to you last night, these are issues that are of substantial concern on the Harvard campus. We formed two task forces last spring that looked in considerable detail at issues associated with faculty diversity, in general, and issues associated with the pool of diversity in science and engineering, in particular. Those reports have been completed, and with Senior Vice Provost Hammonds’ leadership, we are implementing those recommendations. But what I want to share with you is the thing that I thought was surprising about the recommendations when taken as a group, and what I think someone who worked on the formulation of those recommendations found surprising, because I think, in a way, it is important right now for our efforts.

Many of the recommendations that were made are very important for promoting diversity in the sciences, and promoting diversity at Harvard. But, truth be told, many of them were very good recommendations, diversity apart. Let me give you some examples.

One of the recommendations was that we need much more systematic ways of providing feedback, support, and mentoring for junior faculty at the university if their careers were to develop, and the careers of women and minorities were to develop. But if you think on it a moment, probably all junior faculty would benefit in this manner from better mentoring and advice.

One of the recommendations was that it was very important for people moving into scientific careers to have opportunities at a very early stage to do research with members of the faculty, to be supported in doing research with members of the faculty, and have the opportunity to be engaged with peers who were themselves involved in research with members of the faculty. Once again, it is a good idea, and once again it would be a good idea even apart from questions of diversity.

Let me give you another example of a recommendation that was made. There was a strong feeling that the design of the academic system and the biological design of human beings are in an interesting tension. The years of the normal academic career, say between the mid-20s and the late-30s, which are most essential in the decision as to whether a person will be up or the person will be out, are the years when most of us feel strong reason to be most focused on meeting family responsibilities. Of course, this is of particular concern for mothers, but it is also a very important concern for many fathers. If we are to recruit the most able people, and if we are to nurture them and develop them in careers over a lifetime, we need to think about how we balance those family responsibilities with academic development opportunities.

I could go on and talk about many more similar issues: the question, for example, of people who have not followed the standard career path and want to get on the ladder, or get back on the ladder, when they still have 25 or 30 more productive years, but when they have not been on the standard ladder for a period of five or 10 years before, is an important issue, as well.

All of these findings from our task forces and our efforts to implement them have come from a single overwhelming idea, which I will express in the language of my field of economics, though it can be expressed in many different ways. That is that excellence and diversity are complements, not substitutes. By working to promote diversity, we are not compromising excellence; we are working to promote excellence. That is why these kinds of measures are so profoundly important.

I would say that meetings like this are important for two reasons: the easy reason why they are important is that they provide an opportunity to share experiences, to focus, and for everybody to care and to commit together, and that is very admirable. But it is also very important, precisely because the issues are so important, that we think as rigorously, and carefully, and thoroughly, and fully about what the best possible approaches are toward increasing diversity; that we be prepared to discard approaches that, while attractive and born of the best of intentions, are in fact not effective, and that we redouble our commitment to approaches that are most effective. Because, if this is a practical challenge, as I think it is, we need to approach it in the way that practical challenges are best met: with spirited, focused energy, and also with the spirit of data driven inquiry and modification of strategy. That is why the kind of dialogues that are taking place here are so very important.

So allow me, on behalf of Harvard, to express my gratitude to my Harvard colleagues who have been involved in supporting this effort, to the National Science Foundation, to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and above all, to everyone who has taken the better part of a beautiful weekend day to consider what I think are some of the most important issues that we face in higher education, and in our broader society.

Thank you very much.