May-June 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 5

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Diverse Research Workforce
Is Key to Health of Nation’s
Science Enterprise*

ASA co-sponsors congressional briefing on
science education policy

On March 12, the Collaborative for Enhancing Diversity in Science (CEDS), with 60 organizations spanning the spectrum of science fields and education levels, held a congressional briefing on Capitol Hill, titled Building a Diverse Scientific Workforce: Collaboration for Competitive and Healthy Nation, to discuss the necessity and accompanying challenges of increasing the ethnic and racial diversity of America’s scientific workforce. ASA is a founding member of CEDS (see for background).


NIH Acting Director
Raynard S. Kington

The briefing’s speakers were: Raynard S. Kington, Acting Director, National Institutes of Health (NIH); Wanda E. Ward, Acting Assistant Director for the Education and Human Resources Directorate (EHR), National Science Foundation (NSF); and Arthur L. Coleman, Managing Partner and Co-founder of EducationCounsel. Mary Ann McCabe, Society for Research in Child Development, served as moderator.

Welcoming the standing-room-only crowd, McCabe observed that the number of organizations co-sponsoring the event illustrated "the level of interest and concern across the diverse areas of science about these issues." She noted that "most scientific disciplines share the same challenges" and that the level of interest is also "demonstrative of the type of collaboration among organizations that’s already started." The enormous interest in the topic reflects everyone’s concern "about the science workforce for the 21st century in order for our country to stay competitive and be a leader in innovation," McCabe said. She also clarified that for CEDS and many of the groups that cosponsored the briefing the challenges are for science across the board—"every area of science and technology."

A Complicated Story

Using what he called "the demographic imperative" that is "required" when discussing this issue, Kington explained that the "fundamental reason why many of us are deeply concerned about the scientific workforce today and the trends that we are seeing," is that "clearly, the country is becoming more and more diverse." The expectation is that by 2050, white 18-year-olds will comprise less than half of the total U.S. population of 18-year-olds. "This obviously has significance for the scientific workforce because there are dramatically different probabilities of minorities—some higher, some lower—entering scientific careers and succeeding . . . ," he said.

Kington noted that the agency’s starkest challenge is addressing the "startlingly low number" of NIH principal investigators (PIs) who are from underrepresented groups, particularly African-Americans and Hispanics. In addition, the percentage of Native American PIs is so "incredibly small" that making a serious analysis is difficult. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the NIH data Kington revealed is that there has not been a dramatic change over the last 10 years. A contributing factor to this situation is the low number of doctorates in science and engineering going to minorities, with no dramatic increases despite many efforts to achieve diversity. Some agencies have been working at this for literally 30 years, acknowledged Kington.

NIH has begun a series of analytic projects to address these challenges. According to Kington, the agency is doing two types of analysis, including modeling likely changes in the scientific workforce by looking at demographic changes. Kington said that the analysis is discovering interesting patterns, particularly for Asians, over the course of careers. A counter-intuitive finding is that both African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely than majority professors to have a tenure-track position seven years post-doctorate. Conversely, Native Americans are more likely to have NIH funding, controlling for a number of factors such as age, year of PhD, and publication record. These results run counter to NIH’s expectations. What the data reveal, Kington explained, is that there is "a huge need for empirical work looking at the actual evidence and understanding the dynamics of this system of careers."

The picture is further complicated when one looks at the institutions where individuals achieve tenure, he stated, emphasizing that the NIH has just begun its analysis in this area. He also highlighted the NIH’s major initiative looking at the careers of women in science.

Concluding, Kington warned the audience that "all of us need to be prepared for unpleasant evidence, evidence that might raise uncomfortable questions and uncomfortable issues." It is a "complicated story" and "we will have to be willing to hear unpleasant things if we are finally going to have an important, serious discussion about what we can do to correct the problem."

Meeting the National Need

Ward discussed NSF’s role in meeting the national need for a robust scientific workforce in the 21st century. She explained that she assumes that "there is a national imperative and that diversity does, in fact, strengthen the scientific enterprise by the intellectual diversity of thought." Agreeing with Kington, Ward emphasized that there continues to be a crisis in the "underrepresentation of certain U.S. groups in the STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] fields—mainly women students, faculty of color, and persons with disabilities."

Focusing on innovation, which remains the engine of U.S. economic competitiveness, Ward suggested the role of diverse intellectual capital is a topic of great interest to NSF. She stressed that fostering an innovation ecosystem would require intellectual capacity building. Thus, STEM talent development is imperative.

Wanda E. Ward, NSF Acting
Assistant Director for
the Education and Human
Resources Directorate

Ward maintained that research infrastructure "is having learning platforms of places where creativity is fostered and intellectual diversity of thought would be encouraged and fostered." These are some of the subjects that NSF is examining. She informed the group that NSF supports "some 60 programs" at various levels and scales. Half of them are managed in EHR. The programs range from "focused programs," which center exclusively on underrepresented minorities, to those that spotlight women, and others that emphasize persons with disabilities. Still, there are programs where "diversity is a central element that is embedded within the thrust of the entire program," she explained.

Newer directions NSF has taken include its Innovation through Institutional Integration program. This program allows the agency to address areas such as centrally broadening participation and addressing the issue of critical educational junctures, the integration of research in education, a globally engaged workforce, as well as research and evaluation as a cross-cut to all of these issues. All of this, Ward said, occurs in the context of a global and cyber-enabled world. Basically, the program was designed to challenge faculty, administrators, and institutions of higher education "to think more strategically about the creative integration of NSF-funded awards, toward a whole that exceeded the sum of its parts," she explained. The agency’s approach, increasingly, is to look across the Foundation to see what it is doing in this area to move forward more robustly. Ward concluded by sharing the range of activities in which the NSF has supported professional associations to promote broadening participation.

Policy and Legal Environments

Beyond government agency details, Coleman provided the "big-picture" of the policy and legal environments that affect issues of access and diversity, focusing on science education and the science professions. His perspective from working with colleges, universities, and national associations around the country is very much an institutional perspective, he said, stressing that "you have to know that terrain" and what is permissible. He concurred with Kington that "this is ultimately about [using] the research and the evidence base to then drive good results."

What is the evidence? Coleman suggested that "good policy development, while importantly focused on the legal sphere, has to be correspondingly focused on the question of research and data." He said, however, that "the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good" and that "we know more than we sometimes give ourselves credit for."

Coleman stated that in addition to the best research and data, it is also important to focus "on building stakeholder understanding and public will and support." He explained that the dynamic is shifting from the "court of law to the court of public opinion." Echoing Kington’s point on the imperative of "tackling hard and unpleasant evidence," he emphasized that it is important to "let facts, as opposed to ideology, drive this conversation."

Citing the Supreme Court affirmative action decisions in Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, Coleman observed that these University of Michigan cases "framed a compelling case about their institutional mission-driven imperative." That model, he contended, whether you are sued or not, "is a foundation for broad success in the political as well as the legal enterprise." Noting NSF’s efforts to integrate its diversity-focused programs, Coleman argued that "if you follow the theory about the benefits of diversity in education, and in science more specifically, . . . there has to be that integration, because while the numbers are critically important. . . they are the necessary-but-not-sufficient condition for achieving the kind of benefits we say we care about in education and in society." Highlighting the majority’s opinion in the Michigan law school case, Coleman said that the arguments that the benefits of diversity could justify some race- and ethnicity-conscious practices were pivotal in the Michigan case. "There was social science evidence, there was institutional evidence, there were specific perspectives brought to the table that convinced, in that case five justices out of nine."

Why do we care about diversity as an educational enterprise? Coleman answered, "If you understand the ultimate theory that diverse teams actually push and challenge and force new perspectives that lead to better thinking, that lead to better solutions, and ultimately lead to better outcomes, you actually understand that there’s no specific area around where diversity works and doesn’t," he answered. And, he argued, "this isn’t just about the educational benefits . . . but this is about the economic imperative, thematically," as laid out by Kington and Ward. It is also about national security and the United States having the kind of military it needs, Coleman concluded.

A transcript of the briefing and the speakers’ presentations are available at The House Diversity and Innovation Caucus promoted the briefing. The organizations of the CEDS believe that collaboration is essential to enhancing recruitment and retention of underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities in science. In February 2008, the groups held a leadership retreat, which generated a report with recommendations, Enhancing Diversity in Science: A Leadership Retreat on the Role of Professional Associations and Scientific Societies (see May/June 2008 Footnotes). It is available at the website above. logo_small

*This article was adapted, with permission, from the March 23, 2009, issue of the COSSA WASHINGTON UPDATE, the newsletter of the Consortium of Social Science Associations.


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