STEM Researchers: Policies Not Getting Job Done

Updated Mar 17, 2015

John C. NemethJohn C. Nemeth
In Part I of this article, I summarized the opinions and experienced responses to the general question: Are we doing the right thing to engender participation by women and underserved minorities in STEM professions? What follows is the response of the over 70 professionals, who have deep and abiding experience in graduate STEM education, to questions intended to draw out answers based in the reality of STEM education and the products we turn out.

Before you venture further, I commend this speech at Boston University’s 141st (2014) Commencement Baccalaureate by Nancy Hopkins.

I have no better way to introduce or end, as you review the resulting descriptions of my work on this project, to sort out what is really happening today in the education and production of STEM researchers and educators. For, sadly, what is true for women venturing into STEM fields is true of underserved minorities.

So, what follows are the candid responses of seasoned professionals in the STEM business.

Which policies promote/hinder the development of the scientific Ph.D. workforce in the U.S.?

1. …Overall?

· There are hundreds of programs and funding opportunities from academia, government, industry and foundations. While few are evaluated with independent diligence, all may be excellent, but there are not enough. Conflicting missions and competition, albeit most often good factors in gleaning the best researchers, contribute to a general failure to coordinate large-scale research promotion efforts in a programmatically consistent and long-term manner. Every respondent agreed that no national policies exist that have broad implications and sufficient means to improve the research enterprise long term.

· Funding at all levels and from all sources is insufficient and, most importantly, inconsistent.

· We have failed to adequately prepare sufficient numbers of U.S.-born students for entry into the science workplace. This is true regardless of ethnicity and wealth.

· Emphasis upon retention of early U.S.-born undergraduate, master’s and Ph.D. students is critical, and immigration reform is needed to keep foreign students here after graduation.

· Governmental policies and the partnering private sector have to be well-defined, goal-oriented and for a good many reasons visibly equitable. But, funding has not kept pace with the nation’s innate capacity for creativity and innovation, thus not meeting the needs of incipient and young researchers.

· Too much time and effort are required on federal contracts and grants.

· We have failed to attract STEM students, and adequately fund and encourage students. For example, will Congress continue to prevent higher loan interest accrual for students who are still in graduate school?

· There simply is no national goal or set of goals that excite and mobilize the potential scientific workforce.

2. …For specific ethnic/race groups (URM, non-Hispanic Whites, non-Hispanic Asians)?

· Specific intervention strategies for the Ph.D. and all STEM students are needed. We have reached a plateau in URM Ph.D.s. We have no supporting network to leverage successes and weed out failed programs.

· We cannot solve the Ph.D. problem until the B.S. problem is solved.

· The perceived federal schizophrenia to promote diversity, but not be legally able to earmark funds to URMs is a quandary.

3. …For females?

· Tenure-track procedures at most institutions can be daunting to some females. For example, the tenure clock militates against having a family.

· Long-held and pervasive biases continue to be a problem for women.

· For females, there are many gender issues that can inhibit their entrance to the Ph.D. interventions that address the stress points are needed. The ADVANCE program at NSF is developing best practices that can ideally provide solutions.

4. What is the impact, if any, on ethnic groups and females of the increasing proportion of foreign graduate students and postdocs?

· The impact of foreign students coming “full pay” and highly qualified is different for top-tier vs. lower-tier research institutions. Clearly foreign graduate students are both positive and necessary for the research enterprise of the U.S.

· Many respondents feel that the proportion of foreign students has not changed significantly in many decades.

· Foreign students are better prepared than many U.S.-born students, particularly URM students.

It is seen in these responses, that the differences in viewpoint between HBCU, middle-tier and upper-tier research institutions are most obvious. Respondents from upper-tier research institutions say that foreign “full-pay” students are not common at their schools and that they compete along with everyone else for assistantships, etc. Research administrators from HBCU-MEI and middle-tier schools see significant impacts that full-pay foreign and domestic students have on the URM students who rely on assistantships, and loans.

5. With the goal of sustaining a healthy Ph.D. workforce, “how much” must we increase the entry of minorities and females into doctoral programs so that their proportional participation and success reflects the overall demographics in the country?

· Many respondents believe that any move toward proportionate representation is unproductive. Others suggest that special programs are necessary. Some suggest specific targets for URMs and females.

· If the Ph.D. scientific workforce is considered a national priority, is considered a noble and desirable career path, and is supported as such, more will come.

· The mixed message of promote and increase vs. non-quota regulations from nearly all programs confuses and makes it nearly impossible to affect the rate of Ph.D. participation by these groups.

· Until the preparation of students coming through the system is improved to the levels needed to assure academic success at colleges and universities, this situation will not improve.

· Ideally the proportion should reflect the community. That may or may not be realistic, but it is essential that opportunity to reach that goal be given to all students and young scientists. Diversity creates a stronger society, and greater support and understanding of the value and limitations of scientific inquiry. These features are the foundation of American democracy.

Preliminary model results show how past and future trends for URM&W’s do not bode well for our nation’s future.

Without apology, I see the future of American science at the crossroads, even bumping along down the wrong road. Our policies aren’t clear and strong, and the flimsy nature of our programs ignores the U.S. demographic trajectory. As fewer White males go to college, the URM&W cohort’s proportion of participation must grow rapidly as a major source of STEM researchers. In a few decades the lifeblood source of STEM excellence could indeed still be White male, but will it be enough in a world of awakening technology and skill? Without going political, are we creating a STEM “1%” elite? Will that be sufficient? Will that be tolerated? Will this nation still lead in technology and innovation, or will we follow?

Dr. John C. Nemeth is president and project principal at Education and Research Consulting GP.