Issue Date: February 25, 2008
Finding ways to increase the number of underrepresented minorities throughout the chemical pipeline remains a thorny problem. The percentage of this diverse group earning advanced degrees, pursuing postdoctoral fellowships, and holding tenure-track faculty positions in chemistry has been consistently low.
A report released this month based on a workshop held last fall provides a fresh take on finding ways to increase the presence of minorities at the doctoral, postdoctoral, and faculty levels in chemistry departments. The forum looked at many potential approaches, including improving mentoring at all stages. But perhaps the most intriguing method discussed was to help participants understand their implicit biases and how these can unconsciously limit excellence within the academic chemistry community.
The workshop—Excellence Empowered by a Diverse Academic Workforce: Achieving Racial & Ethnic Equity in Chemistry—was modeled on one held in 2006 that looked at improving gender equity in academic chemistry departments. Like the gender workshop, this one was sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the National Institutes of Health and targeted department chairs from the leading U.S. research institutions. It also was dominated by the idea that implicit bias unconsciously affects the way people interact.
To illustrate implicit bias, the underrepresented minorities' workshop speakers used scientific studies on social behavior. This focus on quantitative data???as opposed to personal case studies to drive the discussion???increased the effort's chances of having some actual payoff, according to Cochairmen Isiah M. Warner, a Louisiana State University chemistry professor, and Nicholas J. Turro, a Columbia University chemistry professor.
"I was very concerned that this workshop was going to be one of those activities that get done because it's a political issue," Turro tells C&EN. But that wasn't the case, he says, adding that the forum provided a serious perspective on how peoples' implicit biases play into all aspects of the academic chemistry community.
"It's not just about improving things to increase the representation of minorities in chemistry, it's about improving the environment in general," Turro says. "By making continuous quality improvements to our profession, we raise the level of excellence within the field, and an increase in the numbers of minorities will come automatically," he explains. Specifically, he notes that departments need to take a systematic look at the way everyone in the pipeline is mentored.
Both Warner and Turro note that those who attended the workshop left with a new understanding of how to recognize implicit bias. "When the department chairs left, they were all revved up and ready to go back and try various things within their departments," Warner says. Some examples of things to try were presented at the meeting and included mentoring programs for all junior faculty members as well as genuine open searches for faculty positions to broaden the candidate pool.
Although Warner and Turro agree that the workshop was a success, the true measure will come when the department chairs report back later this year on what strategies they have tried and how effective those have been at improving minority representation in chemistry. To help track the results, a website (chemchairs.uoregon.edu) has been set up that allows anyone—not just meeting participants—to get information on the workshop and post and download successful department strategies.
Like Warner and Turro, NSF Chemistry Division Director Luis Echegoyen was pleased with the workshop. "It exceeded my expectations," he says. NSF's Chemistry Division has been a leader in trying to broaden participation in science through the gender equity and underrepresented minority workshops, he says.
Echegoyen has made expanding participation in chemistry one of his priorities. To that end, he tells C&EN that the division, as part of the Mathematical & Physical Sciences Directorate, launched the American Competitiveness in Chemistry Fellowship program, which is initially aimed at supporting postdocs.
The new program combines both the need to increase the number of underrepresented groups in the field and the need to bolster U.S. competitiveness in general. The program, which is now open for applications (www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=503237), requires both a plan to address broadening participation and an industrial component. Successful applicants will be eligible to apply for an extension that can be carried into an academic faculty position.
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