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The Status of the African-American Physicist in the Department of Energy National Laboratories

Keith H. Jackson

Keith H. Jackson

The National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP) has been concerned about the small number of African-Americans with career scientific staff appointments at Department of Energy funded national laboratories. NSBP has also been frustrated with the overall lack of participation of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU's) in DOE-funded scientific user facilities such as high energy physics and nuclear facilities, Synchrotron Light Sources, and the Spallation Neutron Source. As a result of these concerns, the Technical Executive Officer of NSBP began to collect data, which were placed before the American Physical Society Committee on Minorities (COM). The American Physical Society Committee on Minorities formally took up the issue but first wanted to verify the data provided by NSBP, and to expand the study to include Hispanic physicists. COM enlisted and received the full support of both the National Society of Black Physicists and the National Society of Hispanic Physicists (NSHP).

Our data show that in general African American Ph.D. physicists are less than 0.5% of the Ph.D. physicists employed at the DOE labs. African Americans make up nearly 2% of the physics faculties across the United States, including the faculties of HBCU's. Looking at data compiled by Professor Donna Nelson at University of Oklahoma, we find that the percentage of African-Americans on the faculties of the top 50 physics departments in the U.S. is much smaller (N=60 or 0.6% of total).

What do these numbers mean and what is the connection between the universities and the DOE- funded national laboratories? The DOE labs are government-owned but contractor-operated (GOCO) and the contractor/operators are universities that do not have a single African-American on their physics faculties. The hiring practices and recruiting of the universities are mirrored at the laboratories which they manage. The NSBP has several hypotheses about the reasons:

  • Many university faculty have joint appointments with the national laboratories and serve on the scientific staff committees responsible for hiring.
  • Graduate students from the managing university, and post-docs from established collaborators, have first shot at post-docs and staff scientist positions. If you are not part of that informal network there is precious little chance at getting any position at the laboratory.
  • Many African-American physicists have a natural affinity to the idea of teaching at an HBCU. While this is undoubtedly true, this really leads to a self-fulfilling prophesy, that is in fact motivated by hiring practices at other universities and the DOE labs. That is, academic appointments at these institutions are more available to African-American physicists since appointments in "top-50" departments and at the DOE labs are not available.
  • The bottom line is that the labs have not been inventive and aggressive in recruiting domestic African-American and Hispanic-American scientific talent. What more important mission could there be for an organization that would claim to be a national laboratory?

Many of our colleagues would assert the "pool" or "external availability" of American-Americans with Ph.D.'s in physics is small, and that they know of no African-American with a Ph.D. in physics who is unemployed. But there is, for example, a top-10 university that has graduated over 34 African-Americans with Ph.D.'s in physics since 1974. This university also manages a DOE-funded laboratory. There is not a single African-American physicist on its physics or applied physics faculty. This may not be surprising, but in addition there is not a single African-American Ph.D.-level physicist on the staff of the national laboratory or on the research staff of the university period! There is a common misconception that African Americans somehow have an "affirmative action advantage" when applying for jobs at the national laboratories. If that were true, the statistics would be much better across the labs.

NSBP has some proposals for immediate action to address the diversity problem at the national labs. The labs should become intimately involved with the NSBP and the NSHP and other minority professional societies. These organizations have annual meetings that consist of technical and business sessions. At these meetings the labs will find serious scientists with whom their scientific staff can form authentic collaborations, partnerships and student exchanges. They will also find many students looking for research opportunities and mentorship.

The national laboratories could also benefit from a site visit by a team composed of members of NSBP, to review and give serious advice on the recruitment, hiring practices, workplace environment, and quality of scientific outreach activities of DOE labs. The members that make up these professional organizations possess considerable scientific expertise, and are well informed about science resources within minority communities.

The national laboratories should aggressively seek out and form research partnerships with faculty at HBCU's, Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI's) and Tribal Colleges. AIP statistics reveal that 44% of African American students who earn a baccalaureate degree in the sciences do so at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and most African- American physics professors are at HBCU's. Research partnerships between research-intensive institutions and HBCU's have historically paid great dividends in increasing the number of minority Ph.D. physicists. Each DOE lab should have active collaborations with HBCU's, HSI's and Tribal Colleges that include staff exchanges, i.e., sending lab personnel to the schools as visiting professors, and having professors at the labs as guest scientists, along with their students as fellows. More importantly, national laboratories should pursue joint appointments with HBCU researchers.

The national laboratories should ensure that minorities participate on advisory committees and on annual divisional review committees at all levels. This is particularly true of laboratory divisions that operate publicly financed national user facilities. Diversity of the division staff and facility users also should be a topic to be reviewed. It is difficult to imagine how a review panel with no African-American scientists will ever raise the issue of collaboration with minority scientists. The guidelines of the review should state explicitly that the inclusion of underrepresented minorities in the scientific program is on an equal footing with the proposed science.

Diversity efforts at the national laboratories have to include the actual stakeholders, the senior scientists with actual hiring and program leadership responsibilities. Too often too much is left to the lab diversity officer. In our survey and follow-up research we have found that this is a fundamental disconnect at the national laboratories. Diversity officers often are not scientists and have few informal contacts among working scientists. We found that most of their job is to satisfy contractual obligations which may protect the laboratories from lawsuits but do not help to diversify the lab scientific workforce.

There is also a problem with senior lab personnel somehow equating K-12 science outreach efforts with diversity efforts. The labs will bring in high school children for a day of show and tell, but will not invite serious scientists to serve on review panels and policy boards. The idea is that exposure to science will somehow stimulate these students to major in science when they enter college. However a student of color might quickly come to the conclusion, seeing no people of color in scientific leadership roles, that there are in fact no opportunities to take advantage of and that science is not a viable career path. A student will see it is not a pipeline issue but more of a spigot issue. The lab won't open the spigot to hire a person of color.

The national laboratories need to be committed to programs to improve the distribution of scientific knowledge and high-level scientific and technical skills not only of professors and students from HBCU's, HSI's or Tribal Colleges, but of all US students of science. In many instances the hire of a foreign national in a scientific position at a laboratory is justified on the basis of that foreign national possessing some "special" skill. The national user facilities managed by DOE should play a leading role in providing US citizens with the special skills necessary to compete in the scientific workforce, for example a major investment in summer schools and workshops to train US undergraduate and graduate students in the science and technology embodied in major user facilities such as the national ignition facility, supercomputing, synchrotron light sources, neutron sources, and high energy physics and nuclear facilities. Why do we invest public money in these facilities if we are not going to invest an equal amount in training the next generation of US scientists and engineers in their use?

An example of best practices is the DOE office of Nuclear Engineering. Faced with the declining enrollment of US citizens in nuclear engineering programs , the DOE Office of Nuclear Engineering, Science and Technology moved some of its budget resources to support visiting professorships at HBCU's. This was a quiet effort, and this office should not be confused with the Office of Science, but it provides an example of best practices and education programs appropriate to the DOE mission.

Finally, the Congress must exercise some oversight muscle here. The fact is that the contractors, e.g., University of California, University of Chicago, University of Tennessee, know that they are not about to lose the contract over diversity, and in fact these are sole source contracts which are not competitively bid in the first place. Given the non-competitiveness of these contracts it is very hypothetical of these institutions to talk about so called preferences in hiring of African -Americans. The diversity of the core scientific staff and scientific activity is not a major component of the management contracts. Congress must make sure that diversity performance is strongly and explicitly put into the management contracts, and oversee that performance as only Congress can.

We are dealing with very small numbers that perhaps defy rigorous statistical analysis and control grouping. The DOE laboratories and the academic departments managed by the universities studied by NSBP know what they are doing, or not doing. NSBP calls for congressional action because we are frustrated by commissions, reports, diversity plans and high-level statements. It is time to move directly to things we know will yield results. The Congress ultimately has the oversight responsibility for the national laboratories and we request Congress to turn its attention to this national problem.

Keith H. Jackson, a physicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is President of the National Society of Black Physicists.

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