Protests nationwide in response to the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other unarmed black men and women in the early part of 2020 inspired calls to action inside the academy’s ivory tower.
Social media movements like #BlackInSTEM have drawn attention to the discrimination faced by black students and professionals across the science, technology, engineering and math pipeline. Black residents of the United States who study and work in STEM fields are underrepresented at all levels, from undergraduate programs to the workforce.
Meet 5 black researchers fighting for diversity and equity in science
The academic environment cannot support black students, says economist Gary Hoover of the University of Oklahoma at Norman. "Black STEM students are some of the most talented people, and if the environment isn't going to be welcoming, these people just take their talent to other places."
More American students are earning degrees in science and engineering than ever before. But the gap of black students in these fields has been stubbornly wide, as the population-adjusted figures show. In 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, about 238 out of every 100,000 U.S. residents earned a STEM bachelor’s degree. If the black community were properly represented in STEM higher education, its rate would be similar: 238 out of every 100,000 black residents would have obtained these degrees. However, only 161 out of every 100,000 black residents had done so.
The gap continues in graduate school. In 2018, black residents were 12.3 percent of the U.S. population, but only 8.4 percent of undergraduate graduates, 8.3 percent of master’s degree graduates, and 5.5 percent of doctoral graduates .
As Black STEM students progress through the academic ladder, they may face learning and research environments that are not supportive or actively hostile. In a study conducted by the American Institute of Physics in 2018-2019, black physics students reported that they typically experienced a lack of financial support, as well as microaggressions, small interactions in which peers or superiors question a person’s presence or performance due to a racial charge. bias. These experiences negatively affected the person’s sense of belonging in the field. The results of the study were based on a survey of 232 students, 53 percent of whom identified themselves as biracial black or black. In the survey, 42 percent of black physics students reported that their department creates a supportive environment “most of the time,” compared to 53 percent of their white colleagues. Four percent of black students reported that their department “never” creates a supportive environment; none of the white students selected this answer.
“As I reflected on my own academic journey … there were fewer and fewer black students in my programs,” says anthropologist Stephanie Poindexter of Buffalo University in New York. Poindexter was one of the few black students to study primates in his undergraduate program and representation was further reduced as he progressed toward a doctorate. "What I see is a lot of untapped potential," Poindexter explained for days, "Interested color students who are not encouraged in higher grades in the same way that other students are encouraged."
Within the U.S. STEM workforce, black scientists are also underrepresented, as are Hispanic or Latino and Native American scientists, according to 2017 data.
Among the 11 STEM professions reviewed by the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, or NCSES, only one field demonstrates a rate of black representation that approaches the general population: 92 per 100,000 black residents are social scientists, compared to 122 in per 100,000 U.S. residents in general.
The disparity is especially severe in engineering. For example, 29 out of every 100,000 U.S. residents are chemical engineers compared to 2 out of every 100,000 black residents.
“New potential black engineers have few role models and / or come from similar backgrounds that they can emulate, manifesting in a deficit in younger students cultivating these skills,” says Aaron Kyle, a senior professor of biomedical engineering design at Columbia School of Engineering and Applied Science of the Fu Foundation of the University. Kyle also points out that minority scientists may be cited less than their peers, which leads to challenges in career advancement.
Salary disparities are found in most, but not all, STEM fields. Computer science has the biggest disparity, with an average annual salary in 2017 of $ 97,000 for white professionals compared to $ 72,000 for black professionals. There are so few black mathematicians that the NCSES has not even been able to make a comparison.
Black scientists in the biological and social sciences, on the other hand, have higher average salaries than their white colleagues. Perhaps, Hoover says, some social sciences, such as political science, may be “more able and willing to embrace issues related to ethnicity, race, and inclusion” than other fields, allowing black scientists to negotiate more equitable pay.
When black students switch to other paths, black communities suffer from a lack of physicians, researchers, and engineers who directly understand their experiences and needs. Loss leads to blind spots in innovation, Kyle says.
“We see clear examples of this, ranging from facial recognition software that doesn’t accurately identify black faces to race-based care disparities: COVID-19 mortality, maternal elevation (death) in black women, higher amputation levels between black diabetics, ”he says. For example, the mortality rate of black newborns was halved when babies were cared for by black doctors, according to a recent report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (SN: 25/08/20 ).
To improve the representation of black in science, Poindexter, Hoover, and Kyle argue that solutions should include new grant offerings, promotions, and other research programs dedicated to supporting Black STEM students from elementary to the workforce. “There needs to be a concentrated effort and a financial commitment to balance the balance in the next five years,” Poindexter says.
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