Exclusive meritocracy: A barrier to equity and scientific advancement

In the wake of discussions on equity, diversity and inclusion in academia, ignited by recent social unrest in the U.S., I share some thoughts about one crucial and yet widely dismissed barrier to success experienced by marginalized communities: Exclusive meritocracy. I argue that exclusive meritocracy harms scientific advancement in the long run.

Meritocracy describes the process of awarding reward to talented individuals in accordance to their merit. Exclusive meritocracy, however, refers to meritocracy in which only exclusive members of a specific group organized according to their interest or pedigree have access to opportunities. Often times individuals with remarkable achievements cannot gain access to such opportunities because they are not members of the exclusivity group. This usually emerges within highly attractive fields driven by powerful leaders, and impedes outside-the-mainstream talented persons. One should remark that individuals rewarded in exclusive meritocracy tend to be highly capable even if not the most deserving. This explains why exclusive meritocracy propels itself deeper into the fabric of the most successful and impactful academic and industrial institutions.

Exclusive meritocracy is driven by an overall trend of imbalance in opportunities in which the number of openings sharply decline from one professional level to the next. For example, the funding for Ph.D. students has exploded in the last few decades, resulting in many more opportunities for undergraduate students to attain doctorates. However, funding for faculty positions has either remained constant or declined over the same time interval. The overall result is more talented Ph.D. graduates compete for fewer faculty openings. Comparing talent at this very high level presents a challenge. Exclusive meritocracy can decisively act as the difference maker.

I hope it is clear to the reader why exclusive meritocracy is detrimental to equity. The compounded effect of exclusive meritocracy rampant at various levels of society from childhood to retirement means an overall barrier to diversity and inclusion. This problem requires an overall re-thinking of strategies aiming to enhance minority representation in the workplace. Apart from issues of equity, some may object that eliminating exclusive meritocracy will negatively impact science and technology; after all, civilization has reached an unprecedented level of scientific development utilizing the current system. Here, I beg to differ and instead I make the argument that exclusive meritocracy hurts science and technology. Remarkable scientific and technological achievements often involved creative individuals outside the mainstream line of thinking. In a way, the most ingenious approach to a long-standing problem requires a different mindset, a perspective unassumed with the prevailing philosophy within a particular community. (To my mind, one clear example of this phenomenon is the theory of the quantum Hall effect developed by Bob Laughlin, who was originally trained in first-principle electronic structure methods.¹) This necessitates an openness to outsiders, directly conflicting with exclusivity. Thus, I argue, in the long-term society as a whole and scientific output in particular will be best served by an open culture of merit, open meritocracy.

How do we eliminate exclusive meritocracy? Let me acknowledge first that this article aims mainly to highlight the prevalence of exclusive meritocracy in academia. Proposing solutions to eliminate meritocracy – while urgent – requires a synthesis of ideas, and is thus left to a future article. For now, I wish to point out a few simple measures that may aid in this effort. First, discussing exclusive meritocracy and its harms openly in academic and professional settings can in itself help change the mindset within exclusive groups. Second, rewarding efforts that aim to counter exclusive meritocracy will incentivize leaders to implement practical changes. For example, certain grants can be made available from the university or funding agencies only on the condition that they are to be used to train a postdoc or a student from a significantly different subfield. To prove that, documentation explaining the background of the advisee and a plan to integrate them into the new research program must be presented. I close by emphasizing that science and technology, together with societal welfare will benefit from a culture of open meritocracy.

Some of the thoughts expressed here were inspired by an opinion article contributed by David Brooks in The New York Times titled “The Meritocracy Is Ripping America Apart”, see https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/12/opinion/markovits-meritocracy.html.

I welcome the reader’s thoughts, contributions to this discussion or objections to my arguments. Feel free to contact me with your comments.

¹Perhaps Laughlin faced the challenges of exclusive meritocracy and prevailed. I am in no position to judge. I simply mention this example as a demonstration of success driven by an outsider’s perspective.

John Sous
John Sous
Moore Postdoctoral Fellow