Sunday, October 30, 2011

Moving Beyond Divides...

Motivated by the NYT OpEd piece Moving Beyond Civil Rights by Richard Thompson Ford, this post briefly revisits my Oct. 20, 2011 post named, Dog-eared Culture, Dogged Divide. Ford's article addresses the dilemma that while civil rights legislation and practices have led to a fairer and less divided society, many stark social inequities and injustices persist.

As example, many highly educated female scientists relate well to the persistence of the proverbial glass ceiling that seems to be better tempered as time progresses. Equally relevant is the fact African American scientists remain frustratingly (to themselves and to the NIH) unable to successfully navigate the R01 peer review process.

In Ford's view, addressing social injustice and inequality through additional civil rights legislation and more lawsuits is flawed and likely counter-productive. Any "attempt to achieve collective justice through individual entitlements" is quite simply no good.

An additional problem is the weighty burden of proof. For example, the ritual oblation of African American scientists at the alter of peer review mirrors the circumstances of the recently unsuccessful class-action lawsuit brought by women against their employer, Walmart. In the eyes of the court (and likely to be true of the peer review dons), "statistics can show a pattern of discrimination, but they are not enough to prove that any particular woman was discriminated against."

So...what to do?

Ford asserts:
An effective approach might use carrots and sticks: proof that a business used the best employment practices to reduce discrimination — reviewing decisions for potential bias, monitoring long-term trends and adopting more objective hiring and promotion criteria — might constitute a defense to certain kinds of civil liability, while businesses that failed to make reasonable efforts to prevent discrimination would face fines. Clear goals would replace the constant threat of litigation, and the law would seek to prevent discrimination instead of simply punishing it after the fact.
Peer review is supposed to be an opportunity for ideas to be thoroughly and objectively vetted. Assuming this is the case, it appears that, in the case of American Americans, whatever programs and initiatives designed to level the playing field prior to this stage have proved ineffective. If this is not the case, then we must consider if the peer review process itself is faulty and ripe for further examination.

Either way, perhaps now is a prime opportunity to reconsider the priorities of the peer review system and to fully acknowledge that bias is unavoidable even though the NIH strives for objectivity. It seems that simply seeking evidence of racial bias will prove unfruitful. However, the statistics do show that African American scientists are, for some yet to be understood reason, disproportionally impacted by bias. In this light, it seems possible that in this study, the NIH was looking in the wrong place for a solution to the dogged divide.

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