I didn’t post about Fisher v. Texas when arguments went before the Supreme Court in December (for the second time). It’s a case concerning aspects of the University of Texas admissions process for undergraduates and the case is seen as a possible means of restricting race-based considerations for admission. While I think the arguments in the case will likely revolve around factors far removed from science and or technology, there were comments raised by two Justices that struck a nerve with many scientists and engineers.
Both Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice John Roberts raised questions about the validity of having diversity where science and scientists are concerned. Justice Scalia seemed to imply that diversity wasn’t esential for the University of Texas as most African-American scientists didn’t come from schools at the level of the University of Texas (considered the best university in Texas). Chief Justice Roberts was a bit more plain about not understanding the benefits of diversity. He stated, “What unique perspective does a black student bring to a class in physics?”
To that end, Dr. S. James Gates, theoretical physicist at the University of Maryland, and member of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (and commercial actor) has an editorial in the March 25 issue of Science explaining that the value of having diversity in science does not accrue *just* to those who are underrepresented.
Dr. Gates relates his personal experience as a researcher and teacher of how people’s background inform their practice of science, and that two different people may use the same scientific method, but think about the problem differently.
I think this point about science (which is applicable to many other aspects of life) is more important for judges (and Justices) to understand than specific facts generated by science. A reductionist approach to science, as articulated by Chief Justice Roberts, serves no one well, whether they are practicing science, or judging on how diversity in science may or may not serve a compelling public interest.
(Readers may note that with the Supreme Court currently one Justice down, that the case may end up tied and therefore uphold the decision of the lower court – that the admissions policy is constitutional. However, Justice Elena Kagan took part in the case as Solicitor General and recused herself the first time the Supreme Court heard it. So there will only be 7 Justices voting on it. Remember, I am not a lawyer.)