Diversity In Science | October 20, 2008 Issue - Vol. 86 Issue 42 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 86 Issue 42 | p. 66 | ACS Comments
Issue Date: October 20, 2008

Diversity In Science

By Catherine T. Hunt, Immediate Past-President
Department: ACS News
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography

As presidential candidates Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) trade final jabs over the economy, it's easy to forget that our economic preeminence depends largely on an innovative and skilled scientific workforce. The challenges to this preeminence are substantial: U.S. 12th-grade students are not performing well in science, and the proportion of students obtaining science and engineering degrees has fallen. (Half of undergraduate degrees received in China are in natural sciences and engineering, compared with 11% in the U.S., according to 2004 National Science Foundation figures, which are the most recent available.)

The Labor Department projects a growth rate for science and engineering jobs that is nearly double that for all occupations. And demand will rise even more as droves of baby boomer scientists retire (40% of Ph.D. scientists and engineers in the workforce are over age 50). Hence, there is a critical need to enlarge our scientific talent pool.

What does this have to do with diversity? According to 2005 NSF figures, African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans constitute 25% of the population but hold just 10% of science and engineering jobs. These populations are even less represented in terms of physical science degrees and professorships—accounting for just 4.5% of all chemistry Ph.D.s and just over 3% of chemistry faculty at the top 50 U.S. universities. Although the nature and size of the obstacles before members of such groups are varied, clearly they exist.

And consider this: In 2006, 41% of U.S. elementary and high school students were from racial or ethnic minority groups, compared with 22% in 1974. The Census Bureau projected in August that in 15 years, "minorities will comprise more than half of all children" in the U.S. Simply put, without stronger efforts to help minority students clear obstacles and prosper in science, the scientific community runs the risk of ultimately leaving behind most of the student population.

Given reports that our technological edge may be slipping, the stakes couldn't be higher. We need to redouble our efforts to equip all students with the tools to navigate an increasingly technology-driven society and empower them to pursue scientific careers. I know we all support this, but are we really doing enough individually and collectively to make it happen? Building diversity in the sciences over the long haul clearly demands more passion and persistence.

To be sure, commendable strides have been made to enlarge our scientific talent pool. I am immensely proud of the ACS Scholars Program, Project SEED, and the serious efforts made by ACS committees and operational units in this area. But we have a long way to go as a scientific community.

Against this backdrop, ACS recently added an exciting new tool to its diversity portfolio: the Diversity Partner Program. This program, which was spearheaded by the Committee on Professional & Member Relations (P&MR) and approved by the board in April, is designed to broaden participation in the chemical sciences nationwide among diverse and traditionally underrepresented groups, starting with the African American, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian American communities. (Although diversity certainly encompasses many groups, the idea was to start with just a few of them for the pilot effort.)

As chair of the Diversity Partner Subcommittee of P&MR, I am delighted to report that after reviewing a first-rate slate of nominations, the board of directors selected four outstanding ACS members in August to serve as Diversity Partners for the 2009–11 pilot period: Thomas H. Epps III, Javier Macossay-Torres, Shanadeen Begay, and Guang Cao. Please see their profiles and other information on the program at www.acs.org/diversity.

These diversity partners will begin developing action plans next month so they can hit the ground running in January. Their efforts will be coordinated closely with other ACS diversity efforts and leveraged through partnerships with associations and government agencies with good track records in this area.

The action plans will be tailored to the distinct opportunities within each community. For underrepresented groups, activities could include early outreach, communication, mentoring, internships, and higher education bridge programs. For Asian Americans, the issue is not underrepresentation but overall inclusion in the chemical sciences. Opportunities include fostering workplace parity, leadership development, and other issues.

Diversity in science is not just about changing demographics, it's about equity and doing the right thing. It's about creating a culture that values the contributions and maximizes the potential of everyone. Parents' and teachers' roles are paramount, but we can all make a difference in helping students recognize and develop their unique talents and dream of things that they have the talent to accomplish.

Mentors, for example, can help students overcome isolation, difficult life circumstances, and various other challenges in exploring and pursuing their interest in science. We should all do more to include all science professionals in the workplace. After all, when we include others, we also expand ourselves.

Now more than ever, scientific progress demands the sharpest and most innovative minds. And it often flows best from a diversity of perspectives, experiences, and approaches. In the workplace, studies have shown that teams with diverse perspectives and backgrounds tend to generate more vibrant discussions and exhibit greater creativity.

Imagine the scientific talent that resides within students across the U.S. right now and how much we might squander. As scientists, we must work collectively to broaden and deepen our scientific talent pool and educate students on the vast opportunities that can come with a science degree. Our future economic strength, energy security, and standard of living may depend on it.


Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

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