Biopolitical Times

On June 10, the Michigan State Graduate Employees Union (GEU) called for the removal of Stephen Hsu from his position as Senior Vice President of Research & Innovation. (His title was formerly VP of Research and Graduate Studies but changed recently.) In that capacity, he is an administrator overseeing research funding, grants support, the licensing of university inventions and so on. They laid out their case in a Twitter thread (unrolled here) that introduced the hashtag #FireStephenHsu. The root of their objection is that Hsu is “a vocal scientific racist and eugenicist. This is shameful, and it is actively harmful to our research community.” 

Accurate as that is, no one expected what would happen next.

Within a week, the GEU Open Letter to Michigan State University (MSU) had attracted almost 700 signatures, and a parallel letter started by MSU faculty had over 500 signatures, almost all from MSU professors (plus a few doctoral candidates). A letter supporting Hsu was signed by about 60 members of the faculty, 20 alumni or students and about another 700 people from around the world. Hsu also briefly floated the idea of a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to sue “individuals in the Twitter mob,” but apparently thought better of it.

Clearly, the criticism of Hsu struck a nerve. It’s about time.

This sequence of actions arose out of the June 10th #ShutDownStem and #ShutDownAcademia initiatives from the Particles for Justice collective. A group of faculty and graduate students (most, it seems, scientists) began discussions about how to make tangible change, and concluded that this might be the time to address the problem of Stephen Hsu’s views. Acacia Ackles (GEU Vice President of Organizing & Outreach) was part of the group, and brought in Kevin Bird (GEU President), who had some experience campaigning against scientific racism. The first tweet was up by 5:23 pm on June 10th.

CGS reached out to them on June 11th, and talked with Bird and Ackles on the 12th. Stephen Hsu’s eugenic career has been a subject of interest to CGS since he was a physics professor at the University of Oregon with a dream of defining “the genetic basis of intelligence” in order to select the best embryos and thus boost the world supply of high-IQ individuals. We wrote in May, 2011:

If Hsu’s project really starts to take shape, then it deserves the kind of treatment Stephen Jay Gould gave The Bell Curve, and more. Until then, mild ridicule is a start. But we’d better keep an eye on this.

So we did. Hsu proceeded to work with BGI, a Chinese genome-sequencing company that is now huge, in a failed attempt to identify “IQ genes.” (The movie DNA Dreams describes some of this.) In 2017, he co-founded Genomic Prediction to achieve precisely that goal of identifying the IQ of embryos. However, “for ethical reasons,” the company only identifies (or claims to identify) low-IQ embryos that give prospective parents “the option of avoiding embryos with a high chance of an IQ 25 points below average.” 

Clever, that: After paying the bill, the customers will probably have a normal baby, and no one will ever know if the embryos they rejected would have become more or less gifted.

GEU have stressed that they are not calling for Hsu to lose his academic position (officially in physics, though his recent publications have been in genomics), just his administrative post. The complaints about Hsu range rather wider than his eugenic attitudes, as is detailed in the Twitter thread, and Bird notes in his essay “With Friends Like These: Comments on the Uproar over Stephen Hsu”:

The group gathered evidence from Hsu’s blog and past tweets regarding his publication of views which the group believes to be racist, sexist, eugenicist and anti-scientific, and his promotion of known white supremacists and Holocaust deniers, along with evidence that he failed to uphold conflict of interest protocols regarding his status as a co-founder, shareholder and board member of Genomic Prediction Inc.

Is it not obvious why some academics might be concerned that someone with these views has so much influence on decisions about what kind of research and researchers are funded?

John Jackson, a historian at MSU with a specialty on scientific racism, has written three long and valuable posts about Hsu since the campaign began: first on his connection with Ronald Unz and Holocaust Denial; then on the Ethical Responsibility of Scientists; and next on Academic Freedom:

… Relieving Hsu of his position as Senior Vice President of Research and Innovation is not a violation of academic freedom it is the fulfillment of it. Academic freedom is a promise to police ourselves, it is a promise to society … [This case] is about whether Michigan State University believes that he is the best person to reflect our values as a research university. We should oppose his continuation in his present position because we value scholarship and scientific inquiry. …

MSU President Samuel L. Stanley told The State News, an independent student newspaper at MSU, that “the impact of [some of Hsu’s] remarks was significant, insensitive and divisive,” and offered apologies to those who were offended. According to the Lansing State Journal, Stanley was “fully reviewing the matter” and planned to “institute diversity, equality and inclusion training for faculty, staff and students starting the fall.”

In the time of Black Lives Matter, it’s hard to be a bureaucrat. Diversity training is a start, as indeed are the strikes and tweets that generated all this publicity, but real action on racism in the scientific establishment, as well as the rest of society, is urgently needed.

There is no good excuse for promoting eugenics.

Update: On June 19, President Stanley announced Hsu’s resignation from his administrative position and return to faculty. Hsu accepted this rather grudgingly, writing "I fear for the reputation of Michigan State University.” John Jackson lauded the President’s decision and refuted Hsu’s latest arguments as a capper to what had become a series of six long posts.