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History: The Missing Link in Making Young Scientists and Scholars

History: The Missing Link in Making Young Scientists and Scholars
By Dr. Douglas M. Haynes

A spate of studies over the past decade has documented the dearth of researchers from historically underrepresented groups in our nation’s leading institutions of higher education. Both foundations and scholars have challenged leaders inside and outside the academy to do more to reverse this state of affairs through a more robust commitment to diversity in science.

The proliferation of summer science academies for high school students, enrichment programs for undergraduate majors in the biological and physical sciences, and mentorship programs and fellowship support for doctoral students continue to produce long-term results. These efforts, however, remain incomplete. Absent is the appreciation of science, medicine and technology as an integral component of the intellectual lives of our young people and communities.

As an historian, I am firmly convinced that an early introduction to science — together with ongoing exposure — can stimulate curiosity, reinforce a sense of purpose during the formative and crucial years of college preparation, and feed a passion for knowledge that is essential in the making of future scientists, not to mention historians of medicine, science and technology.

It was not so long ago when the gateways to higher education for people of color were largely closed off. African Americans have never led any of the constituent institutions of the federally supported National Academies. Of course, there have been firsts in the past two decades. Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Morehouse President Dr. Walter Massey oversaw the Argonne National Laboratory. Yet, the presidents of the premier institutions of science and technology, namely, the California Institute of Technology, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are White males. As president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson is the exception. It should scarcely come as a surprise then that so few college graduates pursue doctoral degrees in either the biological or physical sciences or computer science. They opt for degrees in business/management, engineering, law and medicine — careers that often possess deeper historical ties to communities and a tradition of advocacy for social and political change for all Americans.

It is therefore imperative that science, especially its histories, becomes a more vital part of our public culture. Apart from the compelling personal stories and nature of discovery, historical analysis of science equips us all with the skills to participate in public policy discussions about the priorities of publicly funded research, including the future of the genome project, the use of stem-cells, and the implications of global warming, just to name a few.

There are now at least a dozen or more African American historians working productively in the field, specializing in the history of medicine and disease in the United States and Europe. The books by these and other scholars alone will not transform the present state of science in America. But, when combined with outreach efforts and mentoring activities, the history of science, medicine and technology will provide our best and brightest students with the intellectual rationale necessary to enrich society’s knowledge about our universe.

— Dr. Douglas M. Haynes is an associate professor of history at the University of California, Irvine.

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