Nothing Succeeds Like Success
To expand underrepresented minority participation in science and engineering, we need to fund the institutions and programs that are already graduating diverse students.
In February 2020, the National Academy of Sciences and the Kavli Foundation organized a convocation marking the 75th anniversary of Science, the Endless Frontier, the landmark report written by Vannevar Bush at the end of World War II that advocated for a much larger federal role in funding scientific research. Speakers at the convocation highlighted the remarkable success of our nation’s research and development efforts that resulted from the 1945 report. At the same time the convocation inadvertently highlighted a continuing challenge for the scientific community: lack of racial and ethnic diversity. With few African Americans or Hispanics in the audience and only two African Americans among the speakers, the participants did not reflect the diverse population of the United States.
Not long after the meeting, the United States was severely tested by three crises that would lay bare a deep racial divide in our country. The still-developing COVID-19 pandemic hit communities of color disproportionately, revealing significant health disparities. The recession that stemmed from the COVID-19 lockdown exposed racial inequities in the economy as well. Then the shocking death of George Floyd in May 2020 provided yet another example of racial disparities in policing and criminal justice—and catalyzed protests across the country by people of all backgrounds.
These deeply disrupting events converged to elevate the discussion of structural racism in a way we had not seen in this country for decades. Indeed, in the earliest days of the pandemic, the two of us found ourselves urging elected officials and health experts to disaggregate COVID-19 case and mortality data by race and ethnicity. That officials had not collected and published the data in this way at the outset indicated the lack of awareness or low level of importance they gave to issues of race at the time.
After the death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests, the nation’s collective consciousness changed. Many individuals who had previously avoided conversations about race came to the table willing to have deeper discussions and take action in government, corporations, nonprofits, foundations, and the media. This shift created a moment when we as a country might “move the needle” on improving race relations and enhancing racial equity and inclusion—even against the backdrop of one of the most divisive US presidential elections in memory.
Can we make the most of this moment and enact lasting change, both in society and—more specifically for us—in the scientific community? Do we have the same sense of urgency about the inclusion of and success for those who historically have been marginalized that we have about battling COVID or curing cancer? Can we channel this energy into an urgent, sustained, comprehensive, intensive, and coordinated national effort, such as that recommended in the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads, a 2011 report?
Inclusion is not just a matter of equity, although we should value that as well. We all benefit when we increase inclusion because we draw on the talent available in every group. When we have greater diversity of representation, we also have greater diversity of information, knowledge, lived experience, and perspectives—each of which enhances discovery and innovation. When the science and engineering community looks like the United States, we find greater trust in and support for that community across groups in the population.
We are encouraged by recent statements promoting inclusion from leaders in the federal scientific establishment. Eric Lander, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, argued in his first message after being confirmed by the US Senate, “To succeed, America will need to draw on all of its assets—chief among them, our unrivaled diversity.” He noted that “science and technology have too often been unwelcoming or inaccessible to many Americans due to their gender, race, resources, or geography.”
Sethuraman Panchanathan, director of the National Science Foundation, likewise in one of his first communications as director included diversity as an essential goal for the NSF. He articulated a vision that focuses on sustaining US global leadership in science and engineering by investing in strategic opportunities and creating a more inclusive scientific community.
Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, and his colleagues recently acknowledged that “structural racism has been a chronic problem in our society, and biomedical science is far from free of its stain.” They have developed a new framework for NIH that includes “understanding barriers; developing robust health disparities/equity research; improving its internal culture; being transparent and accountable; and changing the extramural ecosystem so that diversity, equity, and inclusion are reflected in funded research and the biomedical workforce.”
To move beyond a verbal commitment to greater representation and diversity, however, we will need to bring meaningful resources to science and engineering education and research, and make sure these resources are allocated wisely.
At a crossroads
The Academies’ 2011 Crossroads report examined the dimensions of racial and ethnic underrepresentation in science and engineering and articulated a set of promising solutions across the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) pathway, beginning with K-12 education and then extending to undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral education and training. The committee urged a priority focus on enhancing undergraduate education for prepared underrepresented minorities who sought to major in STEM. The committee called this the “low-hanging fruit” because so many who are prepared and interested in science end up switching majors and leaving the field—often because of an educational culture that focuses on “weeding out” students instead of supporting their learning and success. This culture, in fact, leads many white and Asian students to leave science as well, although it has a disproportionate impact on minorities who are underrepresented in STEM: women, persons with disabilities, Blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians or Alaska Natives.
The Crossroads committee recommended several strategies to try to increase underrepresented minority success. First, funders and universities should draw on lessons learned from successful models and apply these practices to develop programs that provide students with academic, social, and financial support. Second, faculty and academic leaders should focus on course redesign, especially for introductory courses in the sciences, to support the success of students rather than weeding students out. (This recommendation was echoed in other reports, including one in 2012 by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.) Third, the NSF should create a targeted program to support the hiring and advancement of minority faculty in science, technology, engineering, and medicine modeled on the highly successful NSF ADVANCE program for gender equity, which has increased the representation and success of women faculty in STEM for the past two decades.
Since 2011, we have written articles—in this journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and The Atlantic—updating the data in the Crossroads report. With each new piece, we have provided a fresh look at the issues and urged greater action by federal agencies, foundations, and higher education institutions. But here we are 10 years later. Have we moved the needle? Regarding diversity in doctoral education in the natural sciences and engineering, the answer is “not much.”
While African Americans make up 13% of the US population, Blacks who were US citizens or permanent residents in 2011 when the Crossroads report was published earned just 2.2% of all new PhDs awarded by US universities in the natural sciences and engineering. That figure increased—if you can call it that—to 2.3% in 2018. Similarly, while Hispanics comprise 18% of the US population, those who were US citizens or permanent residents earned 2.9% of all new PhDs awarded by US universities in the natural sciences and engineering in 2011, a figure that increased to 3.7% in 2018.
We have seen somewhat more progress in the social and behavioral sciences, although there is still plenty of room for improvement. Blacks as a percentage of new PhDs in these fields increased from 6.2% in 2011 to 7.0% in 2018; Hispanics as a percentage increased from 6.0% to 7.9% during that period.
Here, we focus on the natural sciences and engineering, fields that have proved resistant to change. We are further concerned because there has been some erosion of progress in racial and ethnic diversity in these fields at the bachelor’s degree level. We cannot make progress at the doctorate level without progress at the undergraduate level, which prepares students for graduate and professional study.
The percent of new bachelor’s degrees awarded to African Americans has been flat in the biological and life sciences (it was 6.7% in 2008 and 6.8% in 2018). In the earth and physical sciences, the numbers were also relatively flat (at 5.6% in 2008 and 5.4% in 2018). In that same time period, the percentage of bachelor’s degrees has declined slightly for engineering (from 4.7% to 4.3%) and for mathematics and statistics (from 5.3% to 4.9%). Of note, the percentage for African Americans has dropped more significantly for computer science during these years, from 10.8% to 8.9%.
The natural sciences and engineering present a different picture than the social sciences, where there has been some movement. According to NSF data, the percentage of new bachelor’s degrees awarded to African Americans has increased slightly for psychology (from 11.2% to 12.2%) and for the social sciences (from 10.2% to 11.2%) over the same period of 2008 to 2018. In these fields, the percentages are nearing parity with representation in the US population.
Learning from successful institutions
We do not have to accept stagnant or downward trends in STEM diversity at the undergraduate level. Several institutions have demonstrated how we can increase the numbers and support the success of underrepresented minorities such as Hispanics and Blacks in the natural sciences and engineering. As shown in Tables 1 and 2, institutions that have prepared undergraduates for doctoral study include historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), high Hispanic enrollment institutions (HHEs), minority-serving institutions (MSIs) and predominantly white institutions (PWIs). We should learn from them and build on what they have accomplished.
For Blacks, the top baccalaureate institutions of doctorates in the natural sciences and engineering include HBCUs such as North Carolina A&T State University (Greensboro), Howard University (Washington, DC), Florida A&M University (Tallahassee), Spelman College (Atlanta), and Xavier University of Louisiana (New Orleans). Non-HBCU institutions that are top baccalaureate institutions for Black doctorates in these fields are the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC, where both of us work), University of Maryland (College Park), University of Florida (Gainesville), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge), and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
For Hispanics, the top baccalaureate institutions for doctorates in the natural sciences and engineering are—by far—the University of Puerto Rico (Mayaguez) and the University of Puerto Rico (Río Piedras). Other top institutions with high Hispanic enrollment are Florida International University (Miami), University of Texas at El Paso, and the University of Texas at Austin. Non-HHE institutions that are top baccalaureate institutions for Hispanics in these fields are the University of Florida (Gainesville), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge), University of California, Berkeley, as well as UC Davis and UCLA.
As we have written previously, including in Issues, we at UMBC have had significant success in preparing African American undergraduates who have then been accepted to our natural science and engineering graduate program and earned their doctoral degree through our Meyerhoff Scholars Program. This program, established in 1989 with support from Robert and Jane Meyerhoff, recruits top minority and majority students in mathematics and sciences who have demonstrated a commitment to diversity in STEM. We instill high expectations in these students, including the goal of doctoral study. We provide financial support so students can focus on their studies, as well as build community to provide a sense of belonging along with vital social and academic support. We encourage students to study in groups and develop faculty allies who bring students into their research, reinforcing learning and promoting identification as a scientist.
Since 1993 more than 1,400 students, predominantly underrepresented minorities, have participated in the program and graduated from UMBC with a bachelor’s degree in science and engineering. Most of these alumni have continued on to graduate or professional programs, earning 359 PhDs (which includes 66 MD-PhDs), 180 MD or DO degrees, and more than 300 master’s degrees, primarily in engineering and computer science. Another 340 alumni are currently enrolled in graduate or professional degree programs. According to NSF data, UMBC is the number one baccalaureate institution for African American undergraduates who go on to earn PhDs in the natural sciences and engineering, as well as doctorates in the life sciences, mathematics, and computer science. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, UMBC is the number one baccalaureate institution for African American undergraduates who go on to earn MD-PhDs.
To appreciate the success of this program, one must also understand the work we did simultaneously to change our institutional culture. As we have found, an institution’s culture—reflected in its values, norms, and priorities—can enable or block meaningful change. To support the success of the Meyerhoff program, we also worked to change the attitudes of leadership, faculty, and staff about teaching, learning, and student success.
Many at our institution originally assumed that academic quality—particularly in science and engineering—could be measured by how rigorous a class could be, even if that meant a high number of students earned lower than a C grade or even failed. Over time, we changed the goal from weeding out students to supporting their learning and success while maintaining academic rigor. We discussed the data on student success, named the problem, created new goals, cultivated allies, and empowered change agents among staff and faculty. These conversations were difficult but led to simultaneous efforts to increase student completion (i.e., six-year graduation rates) and redesign courses (especially introductory courses) across departments to support student learning and success. Over the past 30 years, our six-year completion rate has doubled and the gap in completion rates between white and Black students has disappeared. The success of the Meyerhoff program and these institutional changes reinforced each other.
Investing in success
A 2021 article in Science from a diverse group of high-profile scientists outlined several key steps to increasing broad representation in the scientific workforce. Among other recommendations, the authors urged Congress to establish and fund an interagency National Science and Engineering Diversity Initiative (NSEDI) with coordination and support from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The NSEDI might, they wrote, require funding of “at least 10 billion dollars for several years—a substantial sum but only about 2% of national spending (public and private) on research and development and less than 8% of the federal government science budget.”
These and any other funds that target increasing diversity should be allocated judiciously. We have enough data from the past decade to show which institutions have a proven track record of graduating underrepresented minority students who go on to doctoral programs. HBCUs and HHEs have already demonstrated their value in this endeavor, but so too have other institutions that graduate a substantial number of Blacks and Hispanics who go on to earn PhDs. Thus, financial resources should flow to institutions that most successfully contribute to greater diversity—regardless of institutional type.
Funders could provide these institutions with resources to create new Centers of Excellence for STEM Diversity, for example, that would pursue the goal of doubling the number of African American or Latinx undergraduates who earn a bachelor’s degree in the natural sciences and engineering and are prepared to go on to graduate programs. Such a goal is demonstrably within reach.
If the top 30 baccalaureate institutions for African Americans (listed in Table 1) were to double the number of graduates they produce who go on to earn PhDs in the natural sciences and engineering, we would see a 31% increase over one decade in the numbers of African Americans with advanced degrees in these fields. If the top 30 baccalaureate institutions for Latinx students (listed in Table 2) were to double the number of graduates they produce in these fields who go on to earn PhDs over 10 years, we would see a 43% increase overall in the number of Latinx PhDs in the natural sciences and engineering.
Several institutions have already doubled or even tripled their number of science graduates from underrepresented minority groups. For example, 15 African American alumni from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill went on to earn PhDs in the natural sciences and engineering from 2002 to 2006—the equivalent of 3 per year. Just a few years later, between 2010 and 2019, nearly 60 African American alumni from UNC Chapel Hill earned PhDs in the natural sciences and engineering—the equivalent of 6 per year. Meanwhile at UMBC, we went from 5 graduates who earned PhDs in the natural sciences and engineering per year to nearly 15, almost tripling our numbers. Similarly, the University of Florida nearly tripled its number of Latinx alumni earning PhDs in the natural sciences and engineering, from 8 to 23 per year, moving them into fourth place, behind the University of Puerto Rico’s Mayaguez and Rio Piedras campuses and the University of Texas at El Paso.
Nothing succeeds like success. Institutions receiving money to create new Centers of Excellence for STEM Diversity should draw on the most promising models to develop their programming. For example, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute provided some of the funds used by Penn State University and the University of North Carolina to adapt the Meyerhoff program to their own campuses. New programs funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, San Diego, are also adapting the Meyerhoff program at their campuses. Howard University’s Karsh STEM Scholars Program is a Meyerhoff-like program at an HBCU. Substantive interaction among science faculty within and across these institutions has also been crucial to their success. Support for networking across campuses that are innovating and making a difference allows faculty and staff to have conversations about challenges they are facing and communication about what works. We cannot emphasize enough the importance of sharing information in this way—sharing that can be ad hoc and informal or more formal and involve meetings and conferences.
One practice that needs to be more widely adopted is to provide financial scholarship support to underrepresented minority undergraduates in science, technology, engineering, and medicine. The scientific community understands well the importance of providing financial support for graduate students; we should also support undergraduates to allow them the opportunity to focus on academics instead of working part-time outside of school—a major distraction that reduces the time available for studying, learning, conducting research, interacting with peers, and developing as a scientist.
The transition from graduate school into their careers is another period when underrepresented minorities can need support and benefit from greater attention. Many years ago, we assumed that universities would quickly hire minority graduates with advanced degrees. This has not turned out to be the case. Indeed, many of these new graduates flounder at this transition point and end up leaving academia for positions in industry, nonprofit organizations, or government. While they might achieve personal success in these other sectors, we as a nation are missing out on the opportunity to increase faculty diversity and benefit from the contributions of these researchers to academic science and engineering.
As a start, educational institutions can help bridge this gap by taking stock of some of their own practices. For example, faculty should not merely act as advisors but also be champions for their underrepresented minority students—connecting them to faculty career opportunities and strongly supporting their applications. In addition, institutions should implement policies that encourage their departments to engage in broader, more equitable faculty searches. With better processes, search committees can cast a wider net, broaden the applicant pool, and create welcoming environments for applicants during the recruitment process. At UMBC, we have developed the STRIDE program to help departments and search committees improve their diversity hiring practices and overcome implicit bias. We have found greater adoption and follow-through on diversity goals when majority group faculty provide this training to their majority group colleagues.
Producing scientists is about more than increasing the numbers. It is about changing attitudes and transforming the lives of people. It is about showing our society what is possible when we invest in the talent of all our youth. The most poignant recent example is that of Kizzmekia Corbett, an African American immunologist who is now on the faculty at the T. H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University. Corbett grew up in rural North Carolina, came to UMBC as a 17-year-old, was a Meyerhoff Scholar, earned her PhD at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and worked at the NIH as a postdoctoral fellow. She continued her career at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), where she worked on vaccine development.
Few, if any, people have asked, “Has a Black woman ever created a vaccine, anywhere in the world?” Today all one needs to do to understand how success changes attitudes is to watch the faces of little girls and young women when they hear Kizzmekia Corbett talk about leading the NIAID team that created the mRNA technology that is central to the COVID-19 vaccine. The message is clear: investing in young people, replicating best practices of effective programs, and committing substantially more money to support Black and minority scientists can indeed move the needle and also tackle fundamental scientific and public health problems for humankind.
Top 30 US baccalaureate-origin institutions of 2010–2019 Black doctorate recipients in the natural sciences and engineering, by institutional control, 2018 Carnegie classification, and HBCU status.
Top 30 US baccalaureate-origin institutions of 2010–2019 Hispanic or Latino doctorate recipients in the natural sciences and engineering, by institutional control, 2018 Carnegie classification, and HHE status.