Black Scientists: Why Are There Still So Few?

When Gene Roddenberry’s starship Enterprise explored new frontiers
science fiction in his show Star Trek, he cast a diverse team of actors
to portray the rocket scientists of the future.

Last fall, the rocket scientists starring in the real-life drama of
the Pathfinder, a toysized space vehicle roaming the Martian terrain,
were all White men.

“Don’t you find it almost alien, in the fall of 1997, that there is
no person of color — forget about gender — no person of color [who]
was a part of this enterprise?” asks Dr. Luther S. Williams, assistant
director of Education and Human Resources at the National Science
Foundation (NSF). In this position, he is gatekeeper to approximately
$100 million in federal funds. aimed at increasing the ranks of
underrepresented groups in the sciences.

Williams’s observations are anomalous within the scientific
community. The Pathfinder mission’s monochromatic casting is
characteristic of a persistent and almost unquestioned phenomenon
throughout science, mathematics, engineering, and technology (SMET, to
use the National Science Foundation terminology) professions —
especially among the senior ranks.

In fact, it is still quite commonplace in today’s SMET communities
to be considered a leader in one’s field and have no African American,
Latino, Native American, or female colleagues.

“[Science] is a prosperous enterprise that, by its definition, is
doing quite well without [minority] participation,” Williams says.
“Because we were not mainstays in the enterprise, the enterprise has
learned to prosper without us, … so there is no overarching incentive
to change.”

Just how scarce are African American scientists? Consider the following:

* The U.S. produces nearly one third of all the science and
engineering Ph.D.s in the world annually. (SOURCE: Science and
Engineering Indicators, 1996, National Science Foundation)

* Blacks represent 11 percent of the U.S. workforce, but only 1.1
percent of physical science doctorate holders; 1.3 percent of
engineering doctorates; and 1.4 percent of computer/mathematical
science doctorates. (SOURCE: Science and Engineering Indicators, 1996,
National Science Foundation)

About the Series

This two-part Black Issues In Higher Education series aims to shed
light on how some of the leading science and engineering institutions
are addressing the scarcity of African Americans in these disciplines
— most specifically in the physical sciences (i.e. physics, chemistry,
astronomy, etc.), mathematics, engineering, and technology. These are
areas where the paucity of African Americans is most acute.

The objective of the series is to explore current trends in SMET
education and to uncover the types of academic environments in which
African American science students thrive. To achieve this end, the
series investigates trends in recruitment, admissions, retention,
graduation rates, graduate school performance, research funding, and
faculty development at eight postsecondary institutions. Part one
examines undergraduate experiences. Part two focuses on graduate

Among the Research I institutions featured are: California
Institute of Technology (Caltech), Georgia Institute of Technology
(Georgia Tech), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Stanford
University, and the University of California-Berkeley. The three
remaining institutions featured include: Florida Agricultural &
Mechanical University (FAMU), and North Carolina Agricultural &
Technical State University (A&T), and the University of
Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC).

This series was developed with funding support from the Education Writers

* In 1996, the United States produced eight African American Ph.D.s
in mathematics; twelve in computer science; fifteen in physics and
astronomy; forty-five in chemistry; four in earth, atmospheric, and
marine science; and seventy-four in engineering. (SOURCE: preliminary
summary report, Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities, 1997).

The obvious explanation for why there are so few Black scientists
is that there are so few African American students in the postsecondary
science and engineering educational pipeline. This persistent
under-representation is often attributed to — and dismissed as a
consequence of — Black students’ relatively poor performance on
college entrance exams, which focuses the discussion on K-12
educational issues. But a full explication of the problem requires a
closer look at the role higher education is playing.

As leader of the NSF’s efforts to stimulate diversity among the
nation’s scientific workforce, Williams acknowledges that existing
systems of reward and success within the global science community do
not lend themselves to thinking about matters of racial diversity. Yet
he is convinced that, demographics being what they are in the United
States, change must take place.

Williams is equally convinced that unless the SMET community —
both inside and outside of the academy — makes a sincere and systemic
commitment to transforming itself, the situation cannot and will not

“Ours is a science-driven economy that is knowledge-based. It is
not dependent on natural resources,” says Williams. “You’re either a
part of the knowledge industry or you’re not….

“The challenge for the higher education community,” he continues,
“is to find ways to give African American and other underrepresented
students an opportunity to play a more meaningful role in the
scientific enterprise.”

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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