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Evolutionary biology omitted inadvertently, says DOE

Two days after the Chronicle of Higher Education broke the story about the absence of evolutionary biology from a list of college majors eligible for a federal grant, both New Scientist and The New York Times have provided further details. At issue is a list of majors that qualify for grants up to $4000 under the new federal Smart Grant program; a blank line appears in the list (PDF) in lieu of 26.1303, where evolutionary biology would normally have appeared, prompting observers to wonder, according to the Chronicle (August 22, 2006), "whether the omission was deliberate."

The New York Times (August 24, 2006) reported that a spokesperson for the Department of Education described the omission of evolutionary biology as inadvertent: "There is no explanation for it being left off the list ... It has always been an eligible major." And a press release (August 24, 2006) from the Department of Education states, "The misunderstanding occurred as the result of a draft document that omitted evolutionary biology from a list of majors put forth for use by colleges. As soon as the omission came to our attention, we took steps to correct it. However, regardless of its omission on that one document, evolutionary biology was and continues to be SMART grant eligible."

Not everyone was wholly convinced by the explanation. Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers told the Times, "I am not at all certain that the omission of this particular major is unintentional," adding, "But I have to take them at their word." NCSE's deputy director Glenn Branch told New Scientist (August 24, 2006), "On its own, it's not really a smoking gun ... But in the context of actions that other people in the federal government have taken, it is suspicious." (Branch was referring to a previous incident in which a political appointee at NASA sought to add the word "theory" after every mention of the Big Bang.)

Lawrence M. Krauss of Case Western Reserve University, who was among the first to protest the omission, told the Times, "Removing that one major is not going to make the nation stupid, but if this really was removed, specifically removed, then I see it as part of a pattern to put ideology over knowledge. And, especially in the Department of Education, that should be abhorred." And Steven W. Rissing of Ohio State University commented, "This is not just some kind of nicety ... We are doing a terrible disservice to our students if this is yet another example of making sure science doesn’t offend anyone."