Diversifying the Research Enterprise

In “Challenging US Research Universities and Funders to Increase Diversity in the Research Community” (Issues, Winter 2019), Freeman A. Hrabowski and Peter H. Henderson implicitly ask, Who will do science at the highest levels in mid-twenty-first America? The answer must be: all of us. Every population group must be prepared to contribute. The nation cannot afford to waste or underutilize the talents of any group.

The authors challenge the top 30 institutions that are the baccalaureate origins for African Americans who earn science and engineering PhDs, and the top 30 institutions that do likewise for Hispanics, to double their production. This is bold, but achievable. One way or another, we will find the resources. For my institution—California State University, Los Angeles—which ranks number 29 on the list, this will be difficult, but doable. We are a Hispanic-serving, predominately undergraduate, research-intensive public institution. We have few research laboratories, directed by a small but active number of faculty who have been exceptionally successful mentoring undergraduates in research. We will be able to increase our on-campus training a bit, but a doubling is unlikely. Yet we may be able to reach our doubling through partnerships with nearby major research institutions that may have additional training capacity, such as the University of Southern California, Caltech, and UCLA, among others. We need to match Cal State LA’s student talent with Los Angeles Basin research training opportunities.

Who will do science at the highest levels in mid-twenty-first America? The answer must be: all of us.

When we do reach that doubling, Hrabowski and Henderson will of course expect us to double that number yet again. So, we might as well get working and earn the institutional sweat equity training of all Americans to achieve success in science and engineering. US colleges and universities should see a solid increase in minority enrollments in the near future. Though the nation is a quarter-century from the tipping point where there will be no majority racial or ethnic group overall, the tipping point comes earlier for young people: 2027 for those 18-29 years old, and 2020 (next year!) for those under age 18.

Collectively, there are 60 valuable stories among the 30 top African American producers and the 30 top Hispanic producers of BS/BA alums who earn science and engineering PhDs. The schools span Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, many research-intensive private universities, and flagship state universities. There are 60 unique circumstances—including an energetic and committed minority president and dedicated faculty in one; another with an exceptionally supportive campus climate and many minority faculty and senior administrators; and yet another with a phenomenal training capacity and mostly majority faculty who have become exceptionally committed to diversifying American science. What do these schools do? How do they do it? Are there common themes, or are they wonderfully idiosyncratic? What can the 2,500 or so colleges and universities beyond the top 30 learn from the top producers? We need to compile these stories as inspirations so everyone can do better. We should not miss the opportunity to document this richness. I am particularly interested in the stories behind MIT; the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; the University of Florida; Florida State University; and Cornell University. They are on both lists as top trainers of African American and Hispanic PhD-bound talent. Wow!

Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus
Founding Director, Minority Opportunities in Research Programs
California State University, Los Angeles

Freeman A. Hrabowski and Peter H. Henderson provide a powerful look at the way forward in utilizing America’s entire science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) talent pool. The authors bring into clear focus the continuing underrepresentation of African Americans and Hispanics in STEM fields. Importantly, they offer sound policy recommendations to support evidence-based and promising program strategies to increase the participation of these underrepresented minorities in the STEM workforce.

The authors’ tabular data are informative in identifying the top baccalaureate-origin institutions of African American and Hispanic science and engineering doctorate recipients. The data show striking racial/ethnic differences in baccalaureate origins. Most striking is the prominent role played by historically black colleges and universities that are not research-intensive institutions in educating African American STEM students, whereas almost all the Hispanic students are educated at research-intensive universities. This calls attention to the reality that different strategies may be needed to substantially increase the representation of African Americans and Hispanics, respectively.

Moreover, the authors offer the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), a nonminority institution, as an effective, evidenced-based model applicable to various institutions. A significant strength of that program is that evaluation was an integral component in its design and implementation. Unfortunately, far too many programs to increase the representation of racial/ethnic minorities in science and engineering have not undergone rigorous evaluation—especially by a third party. That UMBC’s 20-year rise from being unranked to the number two baccalaureate-origin institution of African American science and engineering doctorate recipients is strong evidence that a nonminority institution can accomplish the goals set out in the landmark National Academies report Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads, which Hrabowski and Henderson cite in their article.

Finally, the essay’s opening narrative of the former Meyerhoff Scholars at the NCAA tournament reminds us that in addition to the baccalaureate origins, it is important to know about the careers of underrepresented racial/ethnic minorities.

School of History and Sociology
Georgia Institute of Technology

Cite this Article

“Diversifying the Research Enterprise.” Issues in Science and Technology 35, no. 3 (Spring 2019).

Vol. XXXV, No. 3, Spring 2019