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By Adria Schwarber
Diversity and equity in science have become a high priority in the Biden White House. Presidential Science Adviser Eric Lander is championing the issue and sociologist Alondra Nelson leads a new “science and society” division in the Office of Science and Technology Policy that is intensely focused on it.
As part of this initiative, OSTP has held a series of five private roundtable meetings under the title “The Time is Now,” devoted respectively to women and people with gender-expansive identities, people with disabilities, underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, community-centered research, and institutional settings. The office also launched an “ideation challenge” to solicit input on how the federal government can address the question, “how can we guarantee all Americans can fully participate in, and contribute to, science and technology?” President Biden posed that question to Lander in a letter setting out an agenda for him in January.
Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual Science and Technology Policy Forum on October 12, Lander and Nelson discussed takeaways from the roundtables.
Lander said the STEM ecosystem needs more “on-ramps and bridges” for people from underrepresented groups to enter STEM fields. He cited the successes of efforts such as the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which helps minority students bridge the transition from undergraduate to graduate school. Observing that the program has “ended up being the single largest producer of Black students who go on to PhDs” in STEM fields in the US, he remarked, “Why don’t we have 20 times this program across the country?”
Nelson commented that the roundtables had also included people from outside academia who conduct research to address local priorities. “And so we have to think of building these bridges and on-ramps beyond the Ivory Tower, onto Main Street, or onto Martin Luther King Boulevard,” she said.
Another theme Lander and Nelson highlighted was the value of embracing a “whole-of-self strategy” that acknowledges the particular challenges many individuals face.
Lander observed, “The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has a program for [grant] supplements for critical life events—childbirth, adoption, caregiving responsibilities—acknowledging that those things are part of people’s lives, and it’s not supposed to be something you leave at the door and say, ‘well, it’s not really part of our concern.’ If we’re going to prevent people from leaving science, then science has to be here to recognize that events like that happen and provide support.”
Turning to the subject of evaluation metrics, Nelson said that to be successful future efforts will require better data on diversity in the STEM community. She said the White House’s Equitable Data Working Group, which she co-chairs, has discussed ways to improve the granularity of the data federal agencies collect in order to improve understanding of different groups’ experiences in STEM.
Nelson also said such data could be used to track the successes and failures of federal efforts, pointing to the example of the Campus Pride Index, which was launched in 2007 and gathers data from academic institutions on their LBGTQ inclusion policies in order to compare learning environments across institutions.
Looking ahead to immediate next steps, Lander said, “Our goal is to converge…around evidence-based best practices, to highlight equity champions—institutions that have shown us what’s possible, suggestions that can inform policy.”
The author is a science policy analyst for FYI.
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Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondents: Sophia Chen, Alaina G. Levine