Director Berhe (a Black woman in a teal blouse and black suit) with several people of various races, including those of Native American heritage, in a teepee structure looking up.
Office of Science Director Asmeret Asefaw Behre visited Heritage University, which has several centers dedicated to uplifting the Native American cultures of Washington.
Image courtesy of Heritage University

An op-ed by Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, Director of DOE Office of Science

Ensuring that all members of the public are equitably served in the nation’s science, engineering, technology, and mathematics (STEM) ecosystem is the right thing to do. It’s also vital for ensuring the U.S. continues to be economically competitive. The U.S. needs a STEM workforce with a broad range of expertise, backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. This diversity is key to fostering the creative thinking and agile problem-solving required to tackle the most complex scientific and societal challenges of our time. Federal science funding agencies have an outsized role in achieving this goal. As leaders in the scientific community, we must adjust federal agencies’ actions to address the realities we face.  

As stewards of public funds, federal science agencies are responsible for serving the broader public. These agencies must recognize where they are falling short and must take meaningful actions to address those shortcomings. For decades, federal agencies have been making investments to broaden participation in STEM careers and support individuals from historically minoritized groups in STEM. Despite these efforts, the U.S. has made little progress in training PhDs from several communities historically minoritized in STEM. The latest data from the Survey of Earned Doctorates showed that in 2022, a range of scholarly fields across the country didn’t graduate even a single African American Ph.D. recipient. These fields included physics, earth and environmental sciences, engineering, mathematics, computer science, economics, linguistics, archeology, and classical studies. This is also true for several other communities minoritized in STEM. Severe geographic disparities in resource distribution remain. How can the U.S. lead science and technology discovery and innovation while leaving so many behind?

All federal science funding agencies have a responsibility to provide a level playing field for everyone to pursue their interests and talents. This is true regardless of people’s background or circumstances. The historical disparities and systemic barriers faced by minoritized groups in accessing STEM education and careers are pervasive. A concerted effort by federal agencies is required to dismantle structural inequities. Tackling this issue also requires agencies to create inclusive environments that foster the full participation of all who want to pursue STEM disciplines. By providing equitable access to STEM opportunities, federal agencies will affirm the rights of all members of society to pursue rewarding careers as well as contribute to scientific progress and innovation. 

One major way that federal funding agencies play a unique role in the U.S. science and technology ecosystem is their control of access to billions of dollars in resources and opportunities. These resources directly and indirectly support the education and training of tens of millions of students each year. They also enable the training and hiring of hundreds of thousands of scientists, engineers, and other STEM professionals at national laboratories and other research centers across the country. Lastly, this funding supports R&D to address national needs at hundreds of institutions of higher education as well as industry. These agencies are enablers and gatekeepers for access to STEM. The public resources they steward and the opportunities they provide are the bedrock for a vibrant STEM workforce. 

With this role, federal agencies must work to understand the unique needs and challenges of institutions underrepresented in the federal R&D portfolio. Not all Minority Serving Institutions or Emerging Research Institutions have the same needs and priorities. Most need more resources and infrastructure to compete with large research universities. Large research institutions have a concentration of highly trained talent and robust support from offices of sponsored research that small institutions do not. So federal agencies need to meet institutions where they are. Part of this effort should include reducing administrative burdens to applying for funding. In addition, many undergraduate institutions have established an intentionally strong focus on teaching. A good body of evidence suggests that students who engage in research opportunities early in their undergraduate education are more likely to stay in STEM careers. Through partnerships, federal agencies can create more research training opportunities at predominately teaching institutions without trying to change them into large research institutions. For example, the DOE Office of Science has developed a nuclear physics traineeship program that supports long-term training, mentorship, and research experiences for undergraduates.

Agencies support thousands of students and postdocs through dedicated STEM education, training, and workforce development programs each year, but this is only a small portion of the STEM workforce. In contrast, R&D awards funded at institutions of higher education, federal laboratories, and other research organizations train and support a much greater number of students, technicians, and postdocs. This is why federal science funding agencies must emphasize the role of Principal Investigators and institutions to create safe, equitable, and inclusive learning and research environments. Several agencies have taken steps towards doing so through equity and inclusion plans such as DOE Office of Science’s PIER Plans, NASA’s inclusion plans, NIH’s Plans for Enhancing Diverse Perspectives, and more. It’s also critical that graduate student stipends reflect the current cost of living. Postdoctoral researchers also play a critical role – their salaries should reflect their advanced degrees and expertise. 

Finally, we can realize these benefits the most when federal funding agencies, academic institutions, industry partners, and community organizations work together. In partnership, they must create consistent procedures for funding applications, such as the common forms for biographical sketch and current and pending support forms. In addition, they must maintain inclusive STEM ecosystems that leverage resources and expertise, foster innovation and creativity, build trust and relationships, and increase scale and impact of the public’s investment in STEM. 

While these changes are only the beginning, they can put us on a path towards developing a more inclusive and equitable science community that serves everyone.