Ask Dr. Clemmons is a monthly advice column for scientists and engineers who are seeking top-notch academic, career, and personal development advice. Please read the introductory article and my most recent article to see what the column is all about, and then send me a question of your own!

Editor's note: This is the third in a series of articles related to the subject of why everyone should care about "minority issues."

Why should anyone care about "minority issues?"

If you're still reading this thread, then perhaps you are still looking for a reason to care about so-called minority issues. Or, perhaps you are waiting for some great revelation from me to convince you that it's worth your time to even worry about this sort of thing. Quite frankly, at this point you may be thinking to yourself that if it doesn't affect you personally, then why bother? Furthermore, if you are a person who is closely affected by minority issues, then what can you actually do about it? After all, you're just one person, and things won't change in your lifetime anyway. Well, the purpose of this last dose of medicine I am giving with regard to minority issues is designed to alleviate your concerns once and for all and to let you know that what you do today really matters and is critical in terms of the well being and prosperity of everyone in society.

Why should scientists and engineers care?

It is very well documented that children in the United States are generally not being taught to love science from an early age and are in fact turned off to it at some point early in their lives.1,2 By extension, you can safely say that this phenomenon is also present for mathematics as well, which is a cornerstone of the engineering discipline. Interestingly, Dale H. von Haase of Lockheed Martin highlighted this fact as part of a presentation he gave to show how America will be ill-equipped to fight the war on terror, due to a decline in the number of science-educated Americans in the workforce.

Another report issued by Bayer Corp. says that the lack of interest in science shows up in most children by the time they reach third grade. These very alarming statistics are destined to become worse in the decades to come if something is not done about it. A report by the National Science Foundation about educating our children states the dilemma we are facing very succinctly: As "American schools fail more youngsters, this nation's capability to innovate, solve problems, and produce--to sustain world leadership--is in jeopardy." Furthermore, with regard to science and engineering training overall, women and minorities continue to be vastly underrepresented despite having made some gains in recent years.

It is quite obvious to me that America will fail to sustain growth due to the misuse of its most precious resources--its village of children and the minority population. At some point, the blaming of the victim has to stop and careful examination of the problem has to begin. In all fairness, this is what the science community is beginning to do (via the issuance of several commissioned reports that outline the "pipeline" problem). However, in my opinion, concentration on just one part of this critical issue at the exclusion of other equally important aspects is problematic. You can't just focus on the entrance into the pipeline when there is still somewhat of a problem that exists once minorities make it through to the other side of the pipeline.

In other words, the time has come to do away with the excuse that "there are not enough minorities who are qualified" to join our ( fill in the blank) or that minority kids are too "stupid" to learn anything. There are certainly enough of these instances occurring that, if reversed, it would help to solve a lot of America's problems, and especially those in science and engineering disciplines. What these populations need is advocacy (i.e., "Their issues are your issues"). Another way to put it is that recognition and adequate support from the current system is sorely needed. When it comes to children, it is shameful that anyone would sabotage their growth. Also, it is my contention that even when there are minorities available who have science and engineering degrees, they often don't get a shot to learn and to grow, especially at the higher echelons. This is why minority issues are everyone's issues; everyone can help solve the problem (see box below).

What can you do to help minority populations thrive in science and engineering?

  • Make minority issues your issue. Fight for the rights of others because according to Martin Luther King Jr., "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

  • Throw any personal stereotypes out the window and treat each person as you would any other. You might be pleasantly surprised to find out that everyone just needs to be given a chance to thrive in life.

  • Actively and openly discuss racial and gender issues with people in all areas of your life. Colleagues, family, friends, etc. Getting the issues out in the open is often the first step toward solving them.

  • Do not be afraid to disclose what you truly believe. Part of dispelling myths is understanding that myths exist.

  • If you are a principal investigator or a manager in an industrial setting, ask your female and minority subordinates about themselves to find out what their needs may be as a matter of course. Don't assume that you already know.

  • Encourage children of all races and genders to study math and science. These disciplines are building blocks for a successful future.

Just think of the progress that can be made if everyone chose to be a part of the solution, instead of throwing up roadblocks, thus propagating the problem. The simple act of caring about minority issues can often make a difference! An illustration of this is the fact that I recently pleaded with a prominent engineering organization (of which I am on the Board of Directors) to add minority ABET-certified accreditation experts to their team [NOTE: ABET Inc. is the recognized accreditation authority for college and university programs in applied science, computing, engineering, and technology and comprises 31 professional and technical societies].

I was astounded to receive no response whatsoever from anyone, except for a lone female colleague. The organization failed to see that this was an important issue that needed leadership from the top. It is a shame to say, but some of the same people who are in a position to help often choose not to. The reasons vary, but I think it is safe to say that they do not feel that minority issues are their issues.

The irony in this scenario is that as a country, we constantly import talent from overseas and those doing the importing are often the first folks to complain about the lack of scientists and engineers. I wonder if they ever thought about the fact that they are actively turning off and turning away homegrown talent that is right at their doorstep? I will offer an exercise for you in this regard. Can you think of the great inventions that have not been made over time because of the lack of attention to minority issues? What minority was turned away from an opportunity and, as a result, society failed to benefit?

Are you convinced yet?

Truthfully, it is a hard task convincing others to believe in something that they do not see an immediate need for. I believe people on both sides of the issue have to come together for a solution that benefits everyone. In my opinion, the search for the ever elusive solution to problems pertaining to minority issues is at the crux of the argument in favor of everyone caring about minority issues. The simple fact is that the legacy of a generation is tied to the outcome of the racial and gender divide. If things continue the way they are going, W. E. B. Dubois's eloquent statement of fact in his historic novel The Souls of Black Folk echoes an undeniable truth: "The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line." This truth may have to be extended to include the 21st century as well.

I hope the day comes when it is viewed as the norm for people to interact in such a way that all preexisting biases and injustices, whether intentional or unintentional, are eliminated. Perhaps that is asking for too much, but we are living with the alternative every day and the results are pretty clear. The divided house will fall. It's just a matter of time. If as a result of reading this column, you rethink the way you do things and take into consideration how your actions may affect others AND you now believe that minority issues affect everyone, then I have done my job.

--Dr. Clemmons

References

  • Institute for Systems Biology Web site

  • National Academies of Science transcript