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National Science Foundation Launches Million-Dollar Initiative To Improve Diversity in STEM

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/Shutterstock

The lack of diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields has been a persistent problem for decades. White men currently take up 51 percent of all STEM jobs despite making up only 31 percent of the population — which means women and most minority groups are underrepresented and underserved. Not only does this contribute to race and gender wage gaps — STEM workers typically have higher salaries and currently enjoy a lower rate of unemployment than the general working population — but it also critically shortchanges the STEM community, since it means there are likely talented minds that haven’t been reached, and important perspectives that are missing.

Now, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is asking the scientific community to close that gap.

NSF launched a new initiative this week dubbed NSF INCLUDES, a mouthful of an acronym that stands for “Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science.” The organization has officially called for proposals for projects aiming to increase the participation of women, members of racial and ethnic groups, persons with disabilities, and persons of low socio-economic status in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

The goal of the program, according to NSF Director France Cordova, is to transform STEM over the next 10 years so that it is “fully and widely inclusive,” as she said in a Dear Colleague letter accompanying the announcement. Ultimately, the project aims to shift the workforce until these groups are represented in percentages aligned with their overall representation in the U.S. population.

The first stage of the program will fund up to 40 projects at $300,000 each for two-year pilots, the exact nature of which is left deliberately vague.

“We leave the specific nature of each alliance and the ambitious goals it will aim to achieve to you to define,” Cordova wrote to the scientific community.

Successful pilot programs can then compete for five larger “Alliance” awards of $2.5 million per year for five years, rounding out at $12.5 million each. In total, the proposal outlines an investment of almost $75 million over the next 7 years.

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CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

The current science and engineering workforce is heavily slanted towards white men, partly because the older working population tends to be overwhelmingly white and male. In recent years, women have taken home more bachelor’s degrees then men and around half of all science and engineering degrees. However, this varies greatly by degree field; while women take home a majority of biosciences degrees, in some of the most in-demand and high-earning fields — engineering, computer sciences, mathematics, and physics — their numbers lag far behind men.

This overall pattern holds for STEM degrees awarded to underrepresented minorities. Most of the gains in recent years have been in psychology and the social sciences, while their share in engineering and the physical sciences have remained flat and their share in math and statistics degrees has actually dropped. Plus, a persistent education gap means that underrepresented minorities are far less likely to enroll in college, contributing to a lower share of the overall degrees (including STEM). And the higher in the educational totem pole, the lower the share of women and underrepresented minorities attaining degrees.

Increasing the share of women and minorities in the STEM fields would likely have a strong effect on systemic wage gaps, but Cordova and the NSF make a different case for why this diversity initiative is so vital.

“Full participation of all of America’s STEM talent is critical to the advancement of science and engineering for national security, health, and prosperity,” reads the NSF INCLUDES introduction.

According to this thesis, the problem isn’t that there are too many white men in the sciences. The problem is that there’s a smaller proportion of blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, persons with disabilities, and women in the STEM workforce compared to the general population, and that socio-economic barriers still stand in the way of a STEM education — which means there’s talent in the population going untapped. This talent is necessary for the United States to advance in fields crucial to national security, health, and prosperity — as well as to make our research better and more socially relevant.

“Diversity — of thought, perspective, and experience — is essential for excellence in research and innovation in science and engineering,” writes Cordova.

Because the STEM community is lacking that diversity now, the next generation of learners may not have the mentors and role models they need to craft their career paths and stay on them. Or, they may be faced with environments that are culturally unwelcoming, explicitly hostile, or more likely, quietly, almost unconsciously biased against them.

Cordova in her letter, calls these “the subtle, but pervasive, biases that can diminish our collective action.” Along with socio-economic barriers to entry, all of these factors can deter people from entering STEM fields, or cause them to trickle out of the pipeline.

How NSF INCLUDES will help remove barriers to STEM access and shore up the ‘leaky pipeline’ of STEM learners remains to be seen. Possibilities could range from offering more science and math AP courses in underserved areas to increasing the diversity of STEM PhD earners. The solicitation says only that projects must have measurable benchmarks of success, will likely involve a broad collaboration across public and private sectors, and must be scalable to a national level.

NSF officials expect to receive over 250 proposals from this initial call, 40 of which will ultimately receive the initial round of funding. It’s an investment in the future that has been long-awaited.

“The community has been asking us to issue a solicitation for quite a while,” NSF program officer Bernice Anderson told Science.