July/August 2013 Issue • Volume 41 • Issue 5

download pdfDownload full issue pdf


Briefing: Strategies for Building a Diverse Scientific Workforce

Angela L. Sharpe, Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA)*

Sally Hillsman, Erich Jarvis, Kellina Craig-Henderson, Roderic Pettigrew

Sally Hillsman, Erich Jarvis, Kellina Craig-Henderson, Roderic Pettigrew

On June 6, 2013, the Collaborative for Enhancing Diversity in Science (CEDS) held a congressional briefing, “Innovative Strategies for Building a Diverse Scientific Workforce,” to officially release and highlight the accompanying recommendations in its report of the May 2012 workshop, Enhancing Diversity in Science: Working Together to Develop Common Data, Measures, and Standards. Sponsored by CEDS (of which ASA is a founding member) in conjunction with Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the briefing was also cosponsored by an array of diverse organizations.

Moderator Sally Hillsman (ASA) began by highlighting the need for relevant metrics and more standardized data across a broad spectrum of education institutions, including elements needed to evaluate the efficacy of diversity programs, comprising both individual and group efforts, and the numerous programs aimed at effectively mentoring and retaining diverse individuals throughout their scientific careers.

To address this need, in May 2012, CEDS organized a follow-up workshop to its 2008 leadership retreat—a workshop made possible by both the sponsorship and the participation of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and three private foundation partners in the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the William T. Grant Foundation.

A Representative’s Concern

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson at the CEDS congressional briefing

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson at the CEDS congressional briefing

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Ranking Member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) and co-chair and founder of the Congressional Diversity and Innovation Caucus, congratulated CEDS on its leadership. She said that the issue of science diversity has concerned her since before she came to Congress. Noting that 2013 was her 21st year in Congress, she emphasized that the issue remains important to her because “we continue to need to encourage much more diversity in these fields.” She went on to say, “And now it has come to a period where that is the majority population. And we cannot afford as a nation not to continue to reach out vigorously to be more inclusive, not just for the sake of being inclusive, but for the sake of making sure we can stay on the competitive stage of the world.”

A Neurobiologist Viewpoint

The first panelist, Erich D. Jarvis, shared his personal perspective of becoming a scientist and his hope to impart on the congressional audience the importance of diversity in science. Jarvis is a neurobiologist and a tenured faculty member at Duke University Medical School and, since 2008, an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Born in Harlem, he was originally trained as a dancer. He received a BA from Hunter College, where he was accepted in the National Institute of General Medical Sciences Minority Biomedical Research Support (MBRS) and the Minority Access to Research Career (MARC) programs. He attended graduate school at Rockefeller University where he received his PhD in molecular microbiology and animal behavior in 1995. In 2002, he was the recipient of the NSF’s Alan T. Waterman Award, and in 2005, he received the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award.

He stressed that lots of types of training in other kinds of careers can prepare individuals for becoming scientists. Many people from underrepresented backgrounds do not realize this, Jarvis explained. Jarvis also noted that he “could not have achieved what he has so far without the help of affirmative action programs.” His support from MARC and MBRS as an undergraduate helped him realize the importance of affirmative action because they provided him with a stipend and a laboratory to do research along with a budget. Jarvis says that he has determined “that the color of his skin, as well as gender, is rarely neutral in any walk of life, including the sciences. It is either a disadvantage or an advantage.” Consequently, this has led him to the recognition that he has two jobs. One is trying to become the best scientist he can be, like everybody else, and the second, reflecting his participation in the briefing, “is to try to help cure society’s disease”—the disease of using color and gender as criteria for downgrading evaluations of a person’s professional potential.  

The NIH on Diversity

Next, Roderic Pettigrew, director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioethics as well as Acting Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), stressed that the NIH is working to do a better job at diversifying the scientific research workforce. NIH, Pettigrew explained, has undertaken a program and a strategy, called “Increasing the Diversity of the NIH-Funded Workforce.” The overarching goal of the program and strategy is to catalyze a systemic change in the biomedical research culture that will have sustained and long-lasting impact on developing scientists from underrepresented groups.

According to Pettigrew, the NIH is planning initiatives that will stimulate and support transformative approaches to unify and strengthen the institutions and faculty in these institutions that have a particular interest in and dedication to recruiting, retaining, and developing diverse scientists. At the undergraduate level, he continued, the problem is even worse when we look at the transition to graduate school. Underrepresented minorities comprise approximately 33 percent of the general population; yet the group earns only 17 percent of baccalaureate degrees in science and engineering, and even worse, only 7 percent of PhDs in science and engineering. “There is a leak in the pipeline as it regards minorities,” Pettigrew maintained. The strongest predictor of retention in the pipeline is having a mentored research experience, including being exposed to research, and mentored to do research at an early age—which was precisely the kind of mentoring experience Jarvis described as pivotal in his own development as a scientist.

Pettigrew explained that in June 2012 the NIH Director’s Advisory Committee made recommendations in four broad areas: pipeline issues, infrastructure, mentoring and peer review. The recommendations have all converted into action items:  (1) The NIH Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD) Program; (2) The National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN); (3) Coordination and Evaluation Center; and (4) Increased Engagement by all NIH Leadership. NIH intends to leverage the programs to have a broader and more integrated impact.

The NSF Perspective

The final panelist was Kellina Craig-Henderson, Deputy Director of the Social and Economic Sciences Division in the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate at NSF. Craig-Henderson provided data and examples of questions that have been addressed by the research already supported by NSF. She made the plea that this kind of work needs to continue. She pointed to the 2010 National Academies report, Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation:  America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads. The report, she noted, points to the urgent need to expand the number of people in the United States who enter STEM (science, technology, education, mathematics) fields.

“It paints a particularly sobering account of what we can expect in the future workforce if we don’t do something now,” Craig-Henderson contended. “We are on the path to losing our prominence as a nation within STEM.”

In response to this threat, the NSF’s new “science of broadening participation” effort calls for using empirical evidence to determine the best approaches for expanding minority participation in science. Craig-Henderson pointed out that this initiative was a perfect opportunity for collaboration between the natural and physical sciences and the social sciences.

For more information about CEDS, see www.cossa.org/diversity/diversity.html.

*This article was adapted for Footnotes from the full version found in the COSSA Update, June 2013. See www.cossa.org/diversity/briefing/InnovativeStrategies


Back to Top of Page

Print this article discuss this article

Featured Advertiser:

Fellowships Available

Back to Front Page of Footnotes | Table of Contents