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Perspectives: Lack of Diversity in Science

Most scientists agree that the U.S. scientific community is not as racially or culturally diverse as it should be, but how do we change that? After all, this has been a hot topic for years, and the situation doesn't seem to change. However, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has taken charge of gathering ideas for increasing the number of minorities in academia. These issues were addressed at a National Science Board (NSB) Committee on Education and Human Resources workshop called "Broadening Participation in Science and Engineering Research and Education," which was held in Washington, D.C., on 12 August 2003. MiSciNet reposts a Science magazine article by Jeffrey Mervis highlighting this important discussion on workforce diversity ["NSF, Academics Told to Act As If They Mean It," 22 August 2003, vol. 301]. This first installment of "Perspectives," a weekly MiSciNet editorial, allows me to chime in on some of the issues facing minority scientists as well as comment on the site's current content.

First of all, I applaud NSB for continuing to talk about the lack of diversity in science, particularly in academia. The first step to solving a problem is acknowledging you have one. Speaking as an HBCU graduate and a product of NIH's Minority Biomedical Research Support Program, I know firsthand the excitement programs like these generate. My first research experience was in a biochemistry laboratory as an undergraduate, and that training prompted me to venture into biomedical research. However, after viewing the life of a typical academician as a graduate student and later on as a postdoc, I realized there were just too many obstacles to face if I wanted to become an associate professor and run my own lab.

The Mervis article does a great job of pointing out what needs to be improved if we are to recruit more minorities at the nation's research institutions, such as increasing the average salary and promoting more family-friendly work hours, but personally, I've known too many "majority" scientists who couldn't even get their foot in the door of an assistant professorship. The ones who made it had to contend with grant writing and securing funding, serving on countless committees, teaching classes, and so on. Even if they survived the first 4 or 5 years, there was no guarantee of tenure. Let's be honest. It's not an easy life. Now add being an African American, Native American, or Hispanic to the mix, and we find more hurdles to deal with, such as not having other minority faculty members available to be mentors or in a worst case scenario having to deal with some form of racial discrimination.

We all agree that there are many problems with the system, so let's get back to our original question, "How do we increase the number of minorities in academia?" Here's a simple but controversial thought. What if each research institution in the United States issued a directive to its departments to make a serious effort to fill one faculty position with an outstanding scientist of color? Now before anyone screams the dreaded word "quota," let's look at the recent Supreme Court decision on affirmative action policies at the University of Michigan School of Law in Grutter v. Bollinger. [For more information, please read the MiSciNet article entitled "The U.S. Supreme Court and Affirmative Action" by C. Parks-] The Law School attempted to create a "critical but flexible mass of minority students by considering race as a factor in admissions," and the court agreed that "race can be a determinant in school admissions, but it cannot be a predominant factor."

In Gratz v. Bollinger, the court struck down the point system used in undergraduate admissions at the University of Michigan because extra points were given based on minority status and race was used as an overriding factor. However, according to an Associated Press article published in the 28 August edition of The New York Times, the university's undergraduate admissions policy now more closely resembles the law school policy.

The Bollinger case attracted many friend-of-the-court briefs from educational institutions, military officers, and corporations that testified to the benefits of a diverse workforce. In a particularly compelling brief, General Motors noted:

In General Motors' experience, only a well educated, diverse workforce, comprising people who have learned to work productively and creatively with individuals from a multitude of races and ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds, can maintain America's competitiveness in the increasingly diverse and interconnected world economy. Diversity in academic institutions is essential to teaching students the human relations and analytic skills they need to succeed and lead in the work environments of the twenty-first century. These skills include the abilities to work well with colleagues and subordinates from diverse backgrounds; to view issues from multiple perspectives; and to anticipate and respond with sensitivity to the cultural differences of highly diverse customers, colleagues, employees, and global business partners.

If General Motors' experience holds true nationwide, and if the nation agrees with the court's view that "diversity is essential to [the University of Michigan's] educational mission," shouldn't it be possible for research institutions to follow suit and adopt a similar program for recruiting young, gifted scientists of color? This would not only benefit minority scientists but the institutions and the nation as a whole. Anyone who has been involved with a search committee knows there's at least one minority candidate worth taking a chance on.

MiSciNet would like to hear your views on this topic. Please send comments to

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