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Diverse STEM Workforce Needed to Preserve U.S. Competitiveness

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Shirley Malcom, second from left, joined four STEM other experts in delivering testimony before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee on Thursday. | House Science Committee Majority

U.S. innovation has long drawn inspiration from a mix of scientific disciplines, academic institutions, research laboratories and industries, yet the scientific enterprise’s workforce lacks diversity of another sort, according to testimony before a House panel on May 9.

In remarks delivered to the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Shirley Malcom, a senior adviser at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said the growing need for a workforce capable of delivering future innovations and meeting the world’s challenges will require “expanding the pool of talent, tapping into the vast well of women, minorities, racial and ethnic, and people with disabilities currently underrepresented in STEM,” the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The perspective delivered by Malcom, who also serves as director of AAAS’ STEM Equity Achievement or SEA Change initiative, were echoed by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, chairwoman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, as well as by each of the four other panelists who joined Malcom in addressing the committee.

“As the rest of the country becomes more diverse, the STEM workforce has been slow to respond,” said Johnson. “In addition, I have watched with dismay for decades as women have made too few gains in the STEM workforce.”

Earlier this week, the panel introduced the STEM Opportunities Act of 2019, a bill that would require more comprehensive demographic data to be collected on recipients of federal research awards and STEM faculty at universities to help identify and reduce barriers that prevent women and underrepresented groups from entering and advancing in STEM.

The bill also would help instruct federal grant reviewers and program officers on ways to minimize implicit bias and require the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to provide guidance to universities and federal laboratories on best practices to reduce institutional barriers to diversity.

Addressing inequities in STEM education and careers, each of the speakers – Mae Jemison, NASA’s first female African American astronaut and principal of the 100 Year Starship initiative; Lorelle Espinosa, vice president for research at the American Council on Education; Barbara Whye, chief diversity and inclusion officer at Intel Corp.; and James Moore III, vice provost for diversity and inclusion at The Ohio State University – showed how a more diverse workforce can spark scientific discoveries.

Moore shared the story of Shelby Newsad, a prospective student from a rural southeastern Ohio town who wanted to attend university to study biochemistry but lacked the money to do so. She earned The Ohio State University’s premiere scholarship for academically exceptional students who are actively engaged in diversity-based leadership and service. As can be the case with students from disadvantaged elementary schools, she initially struggled with bioscience but was given access to tutoring and career development. Newsad is now doing post-graduate work at University of Cambridge, U.K.

“We need to be innovative and inclusive in the way we recognize talent,” Moore said. “We are missing too many promising students before they even reach our doorstep simply because of their zip code.” He said early intervention programs help close college preparation gaps.

The nation’s scientific enterprise has “produced the most powerful engine for economic growth in the world,” Malcom said, and greater diversity will be needed to continue such advances.

“STEM knowledge and skills are not just requirements for scientists and engineers but for the people throughout the workforce and across our society – from farmers utilizing weather data and robotics to manage crops, to those who care for us when we are sick using high-tech diagnostic tools,” Malcom stated.

Johnson said the United States has gotten by with a STEM workforce “that does not come close to representing the diversity of our nation. However, if we continue to leave behind so much of our nation’s brain power we cannot succeed.”

The STEM workforce, she added, needs “a cavalry of trained scientists and engineers pushing the boundaries of what we know and what we can achieve,” including computer scientists, economists, biologists, mathematicians, engineers, chemists and social scientists.

Malcom has devoted much of her career to finding ways to expand diversity in institutions of higher education in STEM and in the scientific enterprise more broadly where participation among women, racial and ethnic groups lags population levels.

“I do this partly because of my own pathway, from Jim Crow South to years as ‘the only’ in my class, in my major or my lab group, in my faculty or in my committee or board,” she said, adding that as a girl she was inspired by the Oct. 4, 1957 launch of the Sputnik satellite that sent the U.S. scientific community into action and set off the space race.

AAAS has long engaged in efforts to address and overcome barriers to success for underrepresented members of the scientific community.

Malcom pointed to recent AAAS leadership, along with the American Geophysical Union, the Association of American Medical Colleges and Education Counsel, in formation of the Societies Consortium on Sexual Harassment in STEMM that now includes 100 society members; the establishment of the AAAS IF/THEN program to elevate scientific role models to inspire the interests of young girls in science; and the AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors Program, which highlights novel innovations of scientists that effectively address world problems.

The SEA Change initiative, said Malcom, is “the most ambitious AAAS undertaking,” citing the effort’s goal to recognize participating academic institutions that successfully expand gender, race and ethnic equality and put in place transformative programs that enable recruitment, retention and advancement in STEM fields.

“STEM needs these people for the energy, dynamism and diverse perspectives they bring!” added Malcom. “We understand that U.S. research and education cannot be excellent unless they are inclusive — diversity improves the inputs and the outcomes.”

 

[Associated image: House Science Committee Majority]