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Improving diversity in STEM requires collaboration and leadership

by Murrell Godfrey, special to C&EN; Renã A. S. Robinson, special to C&EN; and Emanuel Waddell, special to C&EN
February 20, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 6


This is a guest editorial by Murrell Godfrey from the University of Mississippi, Renã A. S. Robinson from Vanderbilt University, and Emanuel Waddell from the University of Alabama in Huntsville. They are the president, president-elect, and immediate past president of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE).

The COVID-19 pandemic shed light on the historical, long-standing, and still current issues of systemic racism and social injustice in the US. Since the inception of the pandemic, racial inequities have meant increased hospitalization and mortality rates for Black people and other people of color. George Floyd’s narration of his own death—which was made publicly available and shared widely through social media—was particularly revealing. Though we mourn his death and so many others, they have galvanized social movements. Floyd’s tragic death catalyzed change in the US across many facets of life, chemistry included.

Within the field of chemistry, Black people and other people of color and their allies spent 2020 vocalizing the problems that have long plagued the chemical enterprise. These problems include the lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) across departments and institutions (including academia, industry, and government sectors); inequitable barriers to the success of Black people and other people of color in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); unwelcoming environments; off-ramps that are overflowing with talented Black trainees who decide to walk away from careers in STEM; microaggressions; and premeditated racist attacks.

Higher education and STEM have failed the Black community. They also continue to fail women. Disparities in salaries between Black and White people and between women and men in STEM persist. The problems run wide and deep. Although this editorial does not broach many of these issues, we acknowledge that being #BlackinChem or #BlackinSTEM is not an easy feat.

Social media and the use of platforms such as Zoom, Webex, and Microsoft Teams have made it easier for individuals and organizations to facilitate conversations on these and other difficult issues in STEM. Virtual conversations lower barriers to participation, increase accessibility, amplify previously unheard voices, and foster community. More importantly, DEI discussions on virtual platforms have yielded solutions. In promotion of Black scientists—and not just for Black History Month—we celebrate these virtual conversations and hope that they have benefited Black scientists and other scientists of color as well as allies and other individuals in their organizations. This visible change in conversation and attitude around issues of race and racism is necessary. However, the chemical enterprise needs to make DEI-based changes in policies and systems.

The change in systems and culture may seem beyond our reach. How does one change an entire field? A company? A university? A department? How do we ensure that all have access to a chemical enterprise that has historically failed so many?

We believe one solution is to systematize change itself. Several organizations, such as NOBCChE, the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, the National Society of Black Engineers, and the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students, were created to support, promote, and encourage those who are marginalized in STEM, during times when other organizations explicitly prohibited membership or full participation. Today, these organizations have a strong place in the chemical enterprise in providing community for their members and facilitating system-wide change. However, institutional and systemic racism require more than a single charismatic individual or lone organization to begin to make change a reality.

Creating change—as in truly realizing DEI in chemistry—will require organizations and agencies to partner to tear down old systems and build new ones. Realizing the value that each organization brings allows leaders to establish best practices and new approaches to DEI. The American Chemical Society is an example of an organization that has made a bold statement toward its DEI efforts by partnering with NOBCChE and other organizations supporting underrepresented groups to better meet the needs of all chemists, especially Black chemists and other chemists of color. In recent months, ACS has made strides in providing training to its governance and volunteer leaders in areas including DEI, implicit bias, the ACS code of conduct, microaggressions, and more.

Meaningful collaborations on a large scale between organizations, companies, departments, funding agencies, and others are key to combating systems that do not work and to replacing them with new systems that have DEI built into their fabric. The federal government has also supported NOBCChE and other organizations supporting underrepresented groups to improve DEI in STEM at the K–12 level. This support is morally correct and ensures continued US competitiveness.

The appointment of individuals from marginalized groups to leadership positions should also not be fleeting. The US witnessed historic firsts in 2021 when Kamala Harris became the first Black woman and first South Asian American woman sworn in as vice president; and Alondra Nelson was the first Black woman appointed deputy director of science and society at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, by President Joe Biden. These leaders will undoubtedly emphasize the importance of race and DEI in STEM during their national science discussions. Chemistry should be at the forefront of these conversations—and they must be honest and transparent conversations. Taking action and systematizing change through organizational collaborations and strong leadership will help move us in the right direction.

Views expressed on this page are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ACS or C&EN.



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