The hashtags that circulated among scientists in the wake of George Floyd’s killing said it all: #Strike4BlackLives, #ShutDownStem, #ShutDownAcademia.
On Wednesday, according to an online petition, almost 6,000 scientists shut down their labs, teaching and other activities to protest racism. Instead, they spent the day examining ways in which they could help change the face of science.
The initiative was the brainchild of a group of physicists. “The idea is to disrupt the system, at least for a day,” said one of the organizers. Participants signed a petition that read, in part, “We recognize that our academic institutions and research collaborations — despite big talk about diversity, equity and inclusion — have ultimately failed black people.”
Last year, the National Science Foundation put together a comprehensive report that examined, among other things, the levels of participation of underrepresented minorities in science and engineering. While the report was statistical in nature, it painted a picture that should give us all pause.
At the undergraduate level, about 22% of science and engineering degrees are now earned by underrepresented minorities, which the NSF defines as those who are black or African American, Hispanic or Latino, and Native American or Alaska Native. That figure represents a jump of 50% over the past two decades.
Still, that level of representation significantly lags the general population, where these groups now make up more than 1 in 3 Americans.
The numbers grow more sobering at the doctoral level, where minorities earn only about 9% of degrees. This is double the level of 20 years ago, but it’s a big drop-off from undergraduate numbers, and it’s even less representative when compared to the larger U.S. population.
In the current historical moment, we’re focused on racism against black Americans. At the undergraduate level, black students represent a smaller portion of degrees — 9% in science, 4% in engineering — than you’d hope from a group that makes up 13% of Americans. Although the report doesn’t contain statistics that break out doctoral students by their individual race, with only 9% of terminal science degrees earned by all underrepresented minorities, it’s clear black Americans are few and far between in this pool, too.
I could go on with the statistics, but I think you get the picture. When it comes to science, the laboratories and classrooms in America don’t represent America. So, what can we do?
Bringing more minority students into science must start early in children’s academic careers, long before college. That means finding ways to build pipelines in black and minority communities to support STEM education starting in grade schools and continuing up through middle and high schools.
Efforts like this will also require supportive teachers and academic counselors, ones who do not have preconceived notions of what a scientist “should” look like. Implicit bias lurks within each one of us, and it takes but one stray remark to derail a child’s hopes and dreams — and permanently reroute their lives.
Mentoring and outreach will be crucial, and they’ll have to intensify at the college and graduate school levels if we’re to grow the ranks of minority scientists. Our field is one that’s fraught with rejection and failure. (Did you know the vast majority of scientific experiments fail to reach their desired endpoints?) So, especially if you might already feel like an outsider, having someone in your corner to provide reassurance and guidance when you confront obstacles can make all the difference.
Throughout this process, role models and leadership are crucial. Yet at the top levels of science — the institutional thought leaders and gatekeepers — much of that push for change will have to come from those who aren’t members of minority communities.
While I don’t have a National Science Foundation report to rely on, having spent a half-century in biomedical research, I can tell you that the numbers of underrepresented minorities in high-level scientific roles significantly trails representation in the broader U.S. population. Unfortunately, this is also true at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. And if you scan the faculty at universities and research institutes, you’ll see we’re far from alone.
Above all else, science relies on facts and data. When it comes to bringing minorities into our ranks, those facts and data are clear: We’re failing.
There are no easy answers to this problem. But unless we experiment, we can rest assured we won’t find a cure.