Since it's inception in 1950, the goal of the National Science Foundation (NSF) has been "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; [and] to secure the national defense." The foundation seeks to accomplish these goals in a number of ways. In addition to directly supporting research in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), NSF's programs and policies also encourage women, minorities, and people with disabilities--among others--to enter these fields. Yet, despite these efforts, the number of minority students and professionals entering these disciplines is still very low. That is the message of a recent report prepared by the Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering (CEOSE).

The CEOSE report, Broadening Participation in America's Science and Engineering Workforce , documents the progress the NSF has made in this area over the last 25 years and provides an overview of several NSF programs that help minorities enter science and related fields. The authors acknowledge that progress has been modest--and uneven across the various fields of science--and calls for increased research on the factors that influence progress and the barriers that hinder minorities from entering and progressing in these disciplines.

Several CEOSE committee members talked to MiSciNet about the report's findings and offered suggestions on how minority students may improve their chances of entering these fields and continuing on to establish rewarding careers as professional scientists.

Making Progress

In 1980, when Congress initiated the Science and Equal Opportunities Act, CEOSE was established to advise NSF on policies and programs that would encourage the participation of underrepresented groups in science, technology, and mathematics. From 1994 to 2003, NSF increased its budget for efforts to broaden STEM participation by 87.5%. In 2003, $111.11 million were allocated for minority-focused programs. Over the years, funding priorities have shifted from programs that support minority individuals to programs targeting minority institutions.

NSF's progress in diversifying science may be measured by the increased number of degrees awarded to minorities between 1993 and 2001. During those 8 years, the number of African Americans awarded bachelor's degrees in science, engineering, and mathematics grew from 6.5% to 8.6% of all STEM degrees; among Hispanics the number grew from 4.9% to 7.3%, and for Native Americans, from 0.5% to 0.7%. The percentage of doctorates awarded to members of minority groups also increased during this time period: from 3% to 4.3% for African Americans, from 3.2% to 4.1% for Hispanics, and 0.2% to 0.5% of all degrees for Native Americans. Despite this modest progress, these numbers are still low relative to the representation of these groups in the U.S. population.

In a joint e-mail, Beverly Karplus Hartline, CEOSE Report Subcommittee Chairperson, and Samuel L. Myers Jr., CEOSE Vice Chairperson, acknowledge these issues, and point to one spot where the minority-scientist pipeline is especially leaky: "There is a huge drop-off in the minority transition from Ph.D. production to faculty representation." Another area of concern for CEOSE is the low numbers and slow increase in participation of Native Americans in science and science-related fields. Efforts are being focused on programs that provide research opportunities for Native Americans in high school and at Tribal Colleges and for research efforts based in their communities. But so far, the numbers remain very small.

Despite the increased funding and the modest progress, "minorities continue to experience barriers in gaining access to advanced education in science and related fields and achieving doctorates," according to the report. "Limited opportunities for gaining research experience and receiving research grants constitute major problems in limiting the advancement of minorities in the pipeline and into the workforce."

Minority Students Must Take Action

Because minorities still face an uphill climb in science and related fields, CEOSE committee members urge students to become more active in their education. "That's why it is critical for many minority undergraduate students to actively seek out mentors and participate in programs that will help them to gain the experience needed to progress in their chosen field," write Hartline and Myers.

"The best thing any student can do is to engage in research at the earliest possible stages," says Robert Lichter, CEOSE Chairman and Principal of Merrimack Consultants. He adds that while research interests that develop early on are likely to change over the course of a career, early research experience is always valuable.

So where can students find research experience? Hartline and Myers say that students can engage in research through summer internships like the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) programs funded by NSF and through other summer training programs. "Many of these programs are available to high school students. We urge [minorities interested in science] to participate early and often. This will build your network and reputation, convert your ideas into action, and help your applications to college and graduate school rise to the top of the stack."

In addition to obtaining research experience as an undergraduate, Hartline and Myers say that selecting a graduate school that is highly regarded in the student's field is important for students who aim to make that final, difficult leap to a faculty position. Once accepted into a graduate program, students are likely to feel isolated, due to low numbers of minority graduate students in the department.

Minority students can overcome these feelings of isolation, Hartline and Myers suggest, by networking with people in different departments. They also suggest other activities that prepare students for life as a professional scientist or engineer. "Be sure to write papers and give talks about your research, and seek out opportunities that allow you to learn how to teach, how to write proposals, how to collaborate, and gain the other skills and experiences necessary to be a strong candidate for positions in your chosen career path."

Recommendations

It's not enough, says the CEOSE report, to support and encourage individuals; institutions must also change to offer "truly unbiased and open environments for science, math, and engineering education and career progression," environments that foster inclusion and nurture participation.

"Today, many efforts to make science and engineering more inclusive are focusing attention on the multiplicity of 'pathways' by which persons from underrepresented groups can enter and progress through science careers. Creating viable pathways requires addressing the tough issues related to what invites children to learn science (attraction), what causes young people to choose to keep learning mathematics and science (retention), and what then leads students to graduate (persistence) and continue into these disciplines (attachment)," concludes the CEOSE report.

Hartline and Myers believe that minorities must act as the instrumental catalysts for such institutional and environmental transformation. Much depends on developing an accurate--and positive--self-image. As a minority, they say, "you are bright and have a lot to offer science, math, and engineering. With these fields' credentials, you can help your communities in important ways."

Furthermore, Hartline and Myers suggest, "It's important to understand your history and your culture. Find out as much as you can about outstanding persons from your own race or ethnicity who have made significant contributions to science. Use this knowledge to educate others who sometimes conclude that minorities have had nothing to contribute to the making of science and science discoveries. And understand that as long as there is a significant underrepresentation of persons of color among faculty in science and related fields, you will be expected to carry a heavier personal and professional burden than your peers."

Lichter agrees: "Leadership is everything. This nation needs leaders in all areas, leaders who can craft a vision with passion and energy that moves humanity forward, leaders who can get people to embrace and propel that vision, and leaders who stimulate others to take leadership as well. Those leaders have to include populations underrepresented in STEM. They are the future and the hope of the entire enterprise."

Anne Sasso is a freelance writer and may be reached at AMSasso@aol.com.

Anne Sasso is a freelance writer and may be reached at amsasso at nasw dot org.