NSF, Academics Told to Act As If They Mean It

Reposted from Science magazine, 22 August 2003

What will it take to produce a more diverse U.S. scientific workforce? A lot of academic carrots and a few sticks, said participants in a daylong workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) last week. But no combination of incentives and penalties will succeed, they warned, unless universities take the problem more seriously and graduates can find more good jobs.

"We in academia are the problem," declared Shirley Tilghman, a molecular biologist and president of Princeton University. "We have designed the career path in a way that discriminates against women and minorities." She and others ticked off a long list of disincentives, including a lengthy apprenticeship, low pay, family-unfriendly hours, and cutthroat competition for grants.

The workshop supplemented a new report on national workforce policies from NSF's oversight body, the National Science Board, that laments what it calls an inadequate supply of domestic scientific talent ( Science, 30 May, p. 1353). "We wanted to put greater emphasis on increasing the number of women and underrepresented minorities in science," explains Warren Washington, board chair. "We hope that this workshop will lead to a statement by the board on how to achieve that goal." Although the problem affects all of society, he adds, any new NSF policies will focus on academia, "because that's where we have the greatest leverage."

An overflowing roomful of university presidents, government and professional society executives, and longtime advocates of greater diversity told the board that words are good but deeds are better. "If I ruled the world," said Clifton Poodry, who oversees minority programs at the National Institutes of Health, "I'd give a lump [sum] of money to every university that is above average in sending minorities to graduate school. It would be a pat on the back, a message to keep up the good work."

One major obstacle, says Tilghman, is that academic science can be a hostile climate for women and underrepresented minorities--defined as African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans. "Our great success story is the near-parity of women earning Ph.D.s. in the life sciences," she noted. "But that's not the case for new faculty," who are still predominantly male. "Is it that women aren't choosing academic careers? Or is it that academia is not choosing them? I think it's both."

"One [minority] faculty member isn't going to do it." --GEORGE LANGFORD


Tilghman said that university administrators can show they're serious about diversity by creating university-wide search committees with distinguished faculty members to seek out minority candidates--and by rewarding departments with additional resources. But others said that's not enough. "One [minority] faculty member isn't going to do it," said George Langford, chair of the science board's education committee and a biology professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Langford, an African American, noted that Dartmouth has not hired another minority in the natural sciences since he was recruited in 1991. And board member Pam Ferguson, a mathematician at Grinnell College in Iowa, said that one group of retiring white male professors in her department "saw no reason not to clone themselves" in choosing their successors--and would have succeeded had the college president not insisted that the process be opened up.

NSF has recently started to tackle the problem in an indirect way: It's cracking down on grant applicants whose proposals do not adequately describe the larger societal impact of their research, including steps to broaden the scientific pool by reaching out to underrepresented groups. But the effect so far has been minimal: Only 245 of some 30,000 proposals this year have been rejected because they fail to address the research's societal impact, says Nathaniel Pitts, a senior NSF administrator. Moreover, several participants scolded the foundation for not knowing if grantees really follow through on their promises, especially on big projects such as NSF's Science and Technology Centers (STCs).

"The STCs have done great things," said Rice University mathematician and former board member Richard Tapia, who directed community outreach for an STC on parallel computing. "But they haven't changed the culture of the university." Keith Jackson, president of the National Society of Black Physicists, was even blunter. "Is an STC going to get its funding cut off if it doesn't reach its goals for serving underrepresented minorities?" he asked. "That's what really matters."

Jackson also took a swipe at the assumption in the science board's recent report that the demand for scientific talent is outpacing supply. "Our 600 African-American physicists have degrees from some of the finest universities in the country," he said. "But there aren't jobs for them" after they graduate.

For a minority scientist on the bottom rung of the academic ladder, the climb can seem endless. "I know what I need to do to get tenure: publish copiously and bring in gobs of grant money," said Emilio Bruna, a population biologist with 1 year under his belt at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "And being here to talk about diversity isn't going to help." But being resourceful might. Bruna ended his remarks with a plea that transcends race and gender: "Give me a grant. Please."

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