Women, Minorities and the Sciences

Study finds National Science Foundation programs have made a difference, but urges focus on community colleges.
July 26, 2005

National Science Foundation programs aimed at increasing the participation of women and members of underrepresented minority groups in science, mathematics and engineering have produced significant results -- but "there is still a long way to go before individuals from underrepresented groups have full access" to those fields, a report by an NSF committee says. 

The study, "Broadening Participation in America's Science and Engineering Workforce," was produced by the foundation's Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering. The panel takes as its starting point that America is producing fewer and fewer scientists at a time when foreigners who have traditionally come to the United States for graduate science study or to work in academe are increasingly turning elsewhere. 

"This context further underscores the value and urgency of NSF's efforts to expand our home-grown [science, technology, engineering and mathemetics] talent pool, and invite bright U.S. citizens from all backgrounds and regions into STEM," the report says.

Those efforts -- including grant programs designed to encourage undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral education and sponsor research on science and technology learning by underrepresented groups, programs specifically designed to support minority scientists, and policy changes aimed at "embedding diversity" in all NSF programs -- have had an impact, the panel finds.

Between 1994 and 2003, for instance, as the number of NSF grant proposals over all grew by 33 percent, the number submitted by women rose by 73 percent, members of underrepresented minority groups submitted 69 percent more, and disabled people submitted 51 percent.

The rates at which those groups' applications were successful were "comparable," the report says, to the foundation-wide average of 31 percent. But the grants the successful candidates received were, on average, about 15 percent smaller than those awarded to non-minority males.

Despite those increases, far more needs to be done if women and members of underrepresented minority groups are to make their way into science and engineering fields in sufficient numbers, the panel concludes. 

Among its recommendations:

  • While the foundation targets most of its funds to research-intensive universities, the study finds, "most women, minorities, and persons with disabilities ... start their higher education at other types of institutions, and are taught by pre-college teachers who were educated at other types of institutions." The NSF should focus "attention on the role of community colleges and other institutions whose mission focuses on workforce preparation for underrepresented groups as a vital pathway for access" into science, math, and engineering fields.
  • The agency should enhance the research capacity of tribal colleges and encourage more faculty exchanges and scientific cooperation between the Native American colleges and other research institutions.
  • The NSF should conduct more research on why female and minority students are less likely to enter scientific fields.


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