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

Congress is considering a number of proposals aimed at investing in technology and traditional scientific research and development that could make great advances in racial diversity in science.

Why it matters: The proposals come as academic institutions face pressure to hire and cultivate more color teachers, diversify areas of research, and ensure that the overall STEM workforce is more diverse.

Details: The US Senate passed the mammoth last month US Innovation and Competition Act, also known as the Endless Frontiers Act. The bill focuses on large 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, appointed by the President and, subject to Senate approval, to provide “policy, oversight and guidance” advice. The $ 8.5 billion per year agency is one of the largest science grant providers and distributes about a quarter of academic grants for basic scientific research, according to Nature News.
  • The bill would encourage more diversity initiatives in the STEM workforce and in education. These include the “granting of grants to universities to close gaps in the MINT workforce”.
  • The US House of Representatives also passed two competing measures that provide for unprecedented federal investments in a range of new technologies, but it remains to be seen how the bills will reconcile. The House of Representatives Science Committee has also focused on diversity issues, including gender diversity, in the sciences, but its draft laws would not create the same NSF position.

What you say: “The entire merit system on which we believe science is based does not apply equally to blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and people with disabilities,” said Yaihara Fortis Santiago, assistant director of postdoctoral affairs and student diversity initiatives at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, told nature after the death of George Floyd.

  • When protests against Black Lives Matter erupted across the country, institutions made a public commitment to inclusion.
  • At the same time, awareness of the inequalities in the STEM workforce, especially the absence of blacks, Hispanics and Indians, as well as people with disabilities, has grown in recent years and is viewed as detrimental to the scientific enterprise.
  • Certain topics, such as exposure to harmful pollutants, might be more relevant to Black or Latino, for example Populations, however, are under-studied because they are not noticed by researchers in white, male-dominated fields. Such blind spots are particularly common in the geosciences, astronomy and physics. In many other areas of science, too, gender diversity is still a challenge.

The bottom line: More money won’t solve the whole problem. But pending scientific research and development legislation, combined with additional funding included in proposals for infrastructure spending, would be a bold step in diversifying STEM areas.