16 October, 2021

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Congress mulls proposals that could add racial diversity to science and technology research

Congress is mulling a number of proposals aimed at investing in technology and traditional scientific research and development that could make huge strides on racial diversity in science.

Why it matters: The proposals come as science institutions face pressure to hire and cultivate more teachers of color, diversify research fields and ensure that there is greater diversity in the STEM workforce overall.

Details: The U.S. Senate last month passed the mammoth U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, also known as the Endless Frontiers Act. The bill focuses on making major investments, on the order of about $250 billion, in the federal funding of scientific research and development.

  • The bill would establish a chief diversity officer at the National Science Foundation, to be appointed by the president and subject to Senate confirmation, to “provide advice on policy, oversight, and guidance.” The $8.5 billion a year agency is one of the biggest science grant providers, doling out about a quarter of academic grants for basic scientific research, according to Nature News.
  • The bill would push more diversity initiatives in the STEM workforce and education. These would include “awarding grants to institutions of higher education to address STEM workforce gaps,” among other steps.
  • The U.S. House also passed two competing measures that earmark unprecedented federal investments in a slew of emerging technologies, but it remains to be seen how the bills will be reconciled. The House Science Committee has also been focused on diversity issues, including gender diversity, in the sciences, but its bills would not create the same NSF position.

What they’re saying: “The whole meritocracy system that we believe science is based on is not actually applied the same way to Black, Hispanic, Native American people and people with disabilities,” Yaihara Fortis Santiago, associate director for postdoctoral affairs and trainee diversity initiatives at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, told Nature after the death of George Floyd.

  • As Black Lives Matter protests broke out across the country, institutions publicly pledged their commitment to inclusion.
  • At the same time, awareness of the disparities in the STEM workforce, specifically the absence of Black, Hispanic and Native American people and those with disabilities has grown in recent years and is viewed as harmful to the scientific enterprise.
  • For example, certain topics, such as exposure to harmful pollutants, might be more relevant to Black or Latino populations but are understudied because they do not occur to researchers in white, male-dominated fields. Such blind spots exist especially in the geosciences, astronomy and physics. Gender diversity is still a challenge in many other scientific fields as well.

The bottom line: More money won’t solve the entire problem. But pending science research and development legislation, combined with additional funding contained in infrastructure spending proposals, would be a bold step toward diversifying STEM fields.