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How Diversity Improves Science and Technology

Diversity can improve the field of science
Photo credit: Gorodenkoff/Adobe Stock

Some of the nation’s top experts and decision-makers on public policy matters impacting the science, engineering, and academic communities convened for the 46th Annual AAAS Science & Technology Policy Forum in October.

This year’s event focused on the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in achieving innovation and excellence in science and technology. Sudip Parikh, AAAS’s CEO, kicked off the event by explaining how diversity and excellence are intrinsically tied together.

“Diversity of thought that is derived from the diversity of experience gives the U.S. a critical advantage in the global competitive landscape,” Parikh advised.

The forum was keynoted by two officials from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP): Dr. Eric Lander and Dr. Alondra Nelson. Lander started the conversation explaining why the White House is promoting diversity in science a priority.

“It is the right thing that everybody should have an equal opportunity to participate,” Lander said, also noting that diversity tends to produce the best science and that the U.S. will soon face steep competition from populous rivals like China.

Nelson offered some insight into some of the ways that we can promote more diversity and inclusion in science fields. She pointed to a series of roundtables the White House has convened to hear from leaders and advocates who work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) about practices that could help make those disciplines more inclusive. The title of the roundtables – “The Time Is Now” -- comes from a Science article published earlier this year.

“STEM culture in its current form does not feel welcoming for everyone,” Nelson noted, citing interventions that are going on all over America to diversify the culture of the field. She highlighted resources like Diverse Scholar, which promotes tools and advice for people from underrepresented backgrounds trying to enter the field of STEM scholarship.

Throughout the two days of panels and talks, a range of speakers discussed different ways to break down the barriers that make it more difficult for underrepresented minorities to advance in the field.

More than 15 years ago, Keivan Stassun, a professor of physics at Vanderbilt, created the first Ph.D. bridge program in physics and astronomy. Statssun explained to the forum how this program helped foster diversity.

“Traditionally not only have we failed to provide access for diversity to our graduate programs, we have failed to do a good job evaluating who is the best fit for the opportunity,” he noted, describing how his program adopted a more holistic approach to admissions that succeeded in building a diverse student body.

“It utilizes interviews, it utilizes rubrics that come out of the organizational psychology literature,” he said of the holistic process his team created. “As Vanderbilt began to roll out these holistic admissions processes…we saw improve yield and improved Ph.D. completion for all of our students across all of our STEM programs.”

The second day’s keynote address was delivered by Dr. Karen Marrongelle, the Chief Operating Officer at the National Science Foundation. Marrongelle’s speech discussed the need to diversify the STEM landscape.

“The representation of people who identify as women, black, Hispanic, American Indian, or Alaskan Native in our workforce is still significantly smaller than their representation in the U.S. population,” she noted, displaying a graph showing that underrepresented minorities are 8.9 percent of the academic doctoral workforce and 32 percent of the U.S. population.

Marrongelle acknowledged that it’s not an easy task to boost the diversity of the field, but she explained that NSF is making fostering a more inclusive STEM community a priority. She highlighted NSF programs like the Community College Innovation Challenge, an annual competition that it runs in partnership with the American Association of Community Colleges.

“This partnership…strengthens entrepreneurial thinking among community college students by challenging them to develop STEM-based solutions to real problems,” she noted.

Shirley Malcolm, Senior Advisor and Director of Sea Change at AAAS, described some of the obstacles underrepresented minorities face during the Gilbert S. Omenn Grand Challenges Address.

She cited burdens such as female colleagues getting invited to meetings with their male colleagues less often or race-norming in medical testing. One paper she cited, by Michigan State University’s Lisa Cook, found that segregation laws reduced the number of patents by African American inventors, suggesting that racism substantially reduced American innovation.

Malcolm suggested that any strategy to promote greater diversity and inclusion in STEM must be comprehensive.

“We’ve got to fix the numbers, institutions, and knowledge all at the same time,” she noted, suggesting that we have to look at everything from K-12 education to colleges and universities to businesses and community-based organizations in order to promote pathways for underrepresented minorities.

Ultimately, Malcolm argued, we should do more to promote diversity because it’s in everyone’s interest.

“Racism and sexism can be breaks on prosperity,” she noted. “Our biases are not just a stain on the soul of our nation. They’re also a hole in our pockets and a threat to our future. So as we look about addressing the innovation gap, the smart thing – the smart money is on drawing down the diversity dividend.”

[Associated image: Gorodenkoff/Adobe Stock]