Many chemists will by now be aware of the brief, but very loud, incident with Angewandte Chemie and a paper by Tomas Hudlicky that appeared there. Well, it didn’t appear for long – within hours, the link had disappeared. The article appears to have been an update of parts of his book “The Way of Synthesis”, and it didn’t take long for people to notice phrases in the piece expressing irritation about “preferential status” in chemistry for women and minorities, going on to statements about how this would necessarily diminish the prospects for, well, non-women and non-minorities, which pretty much leaves white guys.
That went over exactly as well as you can imagine. There was an immediate furor, which is continuing as I write. The GDCh, the organization behind Ang. Chem. announced today, for example, that two of their editors had been suspended for passing the article and that the “international reviewers” that went over it would no longer be used by the journal. As for the decision to publish, they say that “This was a clear mistake and we deeply apologize. At best, it was poor judgment and at worst, it highlights the bias displayed in our field and many others.”
That it does. I found it interesting, given this, that Hudlicky’s earlier book had a somewhat different tone, as noted in this Twitter post (whose author has made the relevant parts of the book accessible here). Back in the early 2000s, the worry was that “. . .the influx of bright chemists from abroad has slowed down considerably. . .in the past, the U.S. benefitted immensely from short- or long-term interactions with foreign scientists. The diversity of the work force and the possibility of exchange of opinions have declined as a result. . .Diversity of work force (and opinions) 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” Different editors? The passage of years?
I know Prof. Hudlicky a bit, and I’ve blogged about his concerns about honesty in the synthetic organic literature (inflated yields, etc.) He’s a rigorous scientist, but his instincts led him down the wrong path in this case. There are people who could probably claim to believe both his older statement and his newer one at the same time, with talk of origin-blind gender-blind meritocracy. But that’s a philosophical position, not one for the real world. Out here in that world, minorities of many kinds and women in general have had a raw deal – not only in chemistry or in the other physical sciences, although most definitely there – and it’s impossible to act as if this can suddenly vanish with no one hereafter paying attention to such categories. I actually think meritocracy is an excellent thing, but if you just declare “meritocracy in place” as of this moment, you preserve an existing order that has treated a lot of people like second-class citizens and second-class scientists. Worse, it’s an order that has, over the many years, forced many of them unwillingly into those second ranks because the first ranks were closed off to them.
Which is wrong on the face of it, and counterproductive as well. The example is often brought up – as it should be – of what German science did to itself during the Nazi era, deliberately driving away an extraordinary array of intellectual talent. That’s an extreme example, but you can do the same thing more slowly and quietly by only allowing the “right” sorts of people access to what they need to develop their talents. There’s all sorts of room to argue about the most effective ways to address this situation – which has been going on for a long, long time and will not be fixed quickly – but starting off by decrying the current efforts to deal with the problems is not going to help anyone.
There’s another topic that’s come up from this paper that has to do with graduate training in the sciences, which I’m going to defer to another blog post. But I wanted to mention something else that’s come up in the comments to it (I refer to Twitter posts like this one). Organic synthesis in particular has had a well-earned “macho” reputation for many decades, with plenty of hard-driving, hard-living types like R. B. Woodward in its pantheon. That has toned down some over the years – I did my PhD in the 1980s, and I can tell you from personal experience that it has. But it has most definitely not gone away, either. There are still plenty of work-80-hours-a-week-or-you’re-worthless types in chemistry departments (and others) all around the country. Too often, you will find such people when they use their status to lord it over their students, finding that all the more easier to do by targeting female or minority members of their groups. We should be glad that there’s less of this than there used to be, but we shouldn’t pretend that it doesn’t exist, either.