Debra Rolison1

1, Consultant, Arlington, Virginia, United States

How good can American science, engineering, mathematics, and technology (STEM) be when we are missing more than two-thirds of the talent? (i.e., everyone who is not white and male) The now-false and tired contention that “the statistics of small populations” is the operative reason for the slow advancement of underrepresented groups (women and people of color) in science and engineering, especially to positions of power and impact, has too often been used to deflect action that would transform the culture of STEM research–intensive institutions to one that adapts to the diversity of scientific talent endemic to all of humankind. Teaching academic survival skills, such as COACh (the Committee on the Advancement of Women in Chemistry) has done in workshops held for over fifteen years, without addressing the still-too dysfunctional culture in which one seeks to thrive has been shown to lead to minimal improvement in recruiting, hiring, and recognizing female academic chemists.[1] As noted in coverage of these findings: “Perceptions of inequality remained constant across younger and older faculty, racial and ethnic lines, and levels of experience in administration.”[2] Similar difficulties are apparent among the scientific staff of national/federal laboratories.

So how can we change the world of science? Subvert the standard operating procedure. Create a microclimate that shows—over time—how new patterns of operation and inclusiveness yield productive, innovative science—including incorporating undergraduate researchers for full time (six-to-twelve months) of off-campus research. Use the scientific capital and street credentials accrued over time, thanks to the humane but challenging microclimate and the concomitant research productivity of one's team, to challenge the status quo with reasoned and bold arguments for change. Remember the importance of uppity behavior and applying “tipping point” mechanisms to move beyond initial reactions of dismissal to—over time—accepted inevitability (such as greeted my audacious suggestion in March 2000 to withhold federal funds from non-diversified chemistry departments through application of Title IX).[3] And do not forget market forces—the most important resource in research is smart, motivated students and the most important product of funded research is not peer-reviewed papers, but the critically thinking graduate. It is time to assemble a faculty diversity index that delineates who enters a group to do research, how long to degree, and where each student goes after leaving the group—all disaggregated with respect to gender, race, and ethnicity. This prize demographic—the STEM majors seeking a research program—can then make an informed decision with respect to which universities and departments and groups win their talents. We can then see who among the lovers of the status quo in the research-intensive universities really wants to play hardball. It is time to “out” the toxic departments and research groups.

Rolison heads the Advanced Electrochemical Materials Section at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL). The views are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the NRL or the U. S. Department of Defense.
[1] J. Stockard, J. Greene, G. Richmond, P. Lewis, J. Chem. Educ. 2018, 95, 1992–1499.
[2] A. Widener, C&EN 2018, 96(31), 20 (30 July).
[3] D.R. Rolison, C&EN 2000, 78(11), 5 (13 March).