I am reminded on occasion by some readers that the purpose of this magazine is chemistry. And yes, I agree. Usually, they write to remind me of this when we publish articles that, to their mind, have little to do with the subject. These tend to be opinion or feature pieces with topics such as unconscious bias, inclusion or diversity or when we, for example, publish a year-long series of graphic novels on stories of element discovery.
I read all the correspondence I receive and I take the views expressed within them seriously, but there’s one I struggle with: that science exists outside and above of society, culture and politics. I can understand why some hold this view or, perhaps, aspire to this state of being. There is an expectation, bordering on a demand, that science should be unhindered and unsullied by the whirligig of worldly machinations and, above all, a meritocracy. I encounter this last word often.
What of all the hard work and meritorious conduct that one might demonstrate in failing? Would that be on a CV?
Meritocracy is a complex concept, and to judge people based on their merits is fraught. One supposes we are attempting to grant opportunities to those who have earned them, or that have achieved the most, or can prove themselves to be better than the person standing beside them. The meritocratic process, one imagines, overcomes the bigotries of gender, race or class in pursuit of finding the worthiest candidate. But when we must judge one person worthier than another should we, must we, acknowledge that each person’s trajectory through life has been adjusted by many circumstances, legacies, windfalls and pitfalls? These seldom abide by the rules of ‘worthiness’ or ‘getting what you deserve’. Many people never even got to the stage where you could judge them. Life is famously unfair.
Perhaps ‘worthiness’ is the problem. If instead we view ‘merit’ as ‘accomplishments’ then we might make administering our meritocracy easier. From a CV we can clearly see who has achieved more, attained better grades, published more papers, and attended more conferences. But, again, those accolades are not won on a level playing field. Parents and carers might attend fewer conferences, some fields publish more papers than others, good grades and extra-curricular activities are influenced by home, school, neighbourhoods and role models. What of all the hard work and meritorious conduct that one might demonstrate in failing? Would that be on a CV?
The idea of what merit is becomes blurred with the characteristics of the people who have had it before, and are deemed to have it now.
Talent and effort, the cornerstones of meritocracy, are not earned – they are learned. Or encouraged, or demonised, or made probable or impossible through the life as lived. Furthermore, once you form a group of people who share a particular merit, say expertise in chemistry, it seems inevitable that the group becomes more homogenous. The idea of what merit is becomes blurred with the characteristics of the people who have had it before, and are deemed to have it now. People like this have merit, people like that do not. And so it continues.
So, back to the point. Can meritocracy in science work? Yes, theoretically, I suppose. There are limited opportunities, decreasing as they become more richly rewarded and glazed in greater status, and we need some method to ensure those who deserve them eventually get them. But meritocracy doesn’t seem to be fit for the purpose, at least not without some additional principles beyond a strident belief that the best will naturally rise to the top. They don’t – every despot through history is proof of that. Our ruling class would be the very best of us – they often aren’t.
We need people to do something more than have faith, whether it be whole or faint hearted, in the meritocracy
No, we need something extra; we need people to do something more than have faith, whether it be whole or faint hearted, in the meritocracy. We shouldn’t expect this effort to come from those who are disfavoured by the very system of reward that we need to change. Those on the podium, or in the race at all, need to work harder for those who didn’t even make it to the starting line.
In writing this, have I committed the cardinal sin of not ‘keeping it about chemistry’? Only you can decide that. Is everything in its right place?