I have said it before, and it is worth saying again. Especially now.
Every single one of us is biased.
My name is Didi Cross, and I have been involved in science evaluation for nearly ten years, including supporting the NIH and NSF in the United States, and funders and universities in the EU, UK, and BRICS.
Now – when so many are recognizing the systematic injustices inflicted on our Black brothers and sisters, and also the part that each one of us plays in reinforcing biases that justify and perpetuate these injustices – there is a clear need to be able to think about bias in a considered way. This is especially so for evaluation.
Let’s start with the premise that we are all biased. Every. Single. One of us.
Being biased means that our expectations are sometimes wrong – perhaps more often than not. This is not an untested assumption, as abundant research in many disciplines has shown.
What does this mean for evaluation?
It means that the battle against bias is one that must be fought every day. It is not a single something that you can add to your evaluation that will yield an unbiased result each time – or even most of the time. (And please, let’s not call it ‘unbiased’.) It is something that requires constant reexamination, truly listening to as many views as you can engage – especially those that are opposing to yours. It requires vigilance and examination of your evaluation engagement, questions and methodology; your data collection, analysis, and interpretation, your presentation, write-up, publication outlet, and your follow-up. In particular, it requires those in a place of privilege to examine themselves.* As evaluators, we are unquestionably privileged to design and conduct evaluation, and ultimately share our interpretations. It is particularly for those in a place of privilege for whom the standards of conduct and intellectual engagement ought to be the highest.
This is an uncomfortable time for many. But that discomfort is a result of questioning what you know, admitting that you have been wrong, and anticipating you’ll be wrong again – and it is absolutely necessary.
There is much that can and should happen systematically to address the injustices of today. Those of us who are not Black will never experience and never fully comprehend what it feels like to suffer under them. But in recognizing how ingrained these systems and structures are, let us not forget that our institutions – whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – are only so strong as the individuals who uphold them. There is a place for each one of us to take action. You can start by simply questioning your own thinking.
Look within and dig into your own discomfort. You might then have a hope of taking a little less for granted and making your evaluations just a little bit less biased.
* I identify as Asian-American and recognize the relative privilege I hold as such.
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