The future of research in the USA requires that we recruit the best possible scientists. As the country gets less and less white, we can’t afford to have fewer and fewer people seeing science as a valid career path. This should be self-evident.
When NSF and NIH throw money at the problem, the money mostly winds up in institutions that don’t have many underrepresented minority (URM) students. It’s no surprise, then, that we haven’t seen a substantial increase in the URM population of career scientists. At least, the increase is meager given the big emphasis over the years.
Most URM students who are brought into active research programs are the token few, who are already interested in research and are prepared to do it. Research institutions can advertise and recruit, and they’ll get research-focused students. So, a small number of prepared and focused URM students become a highly prized commodity among funded researchers. As the stakes get higher for URM students, then the small number of them who already want to do research become even more valuable.
To recruit new URM students into science, you have to recruit URM students into doing science. To increase the actual number of URM students who want to do science, you need to identify those who aren’t interested or ready to do science and make it happen for them. This happens some places, but it’s not the standard approach. Most programs take the easier route, to scrounge for the already-science-focused URM students instead of recruiting new students. It’s easier.
URM students disproportionately come from disadvantaged backgrounds. And disadvantaged students go to disadvantaged universities. Disadvantaged students aren’t to be found in the locations where world-class scientists are trained. Let me emphasize this point again, because it’s huge:
Disadvantaged students enroll in disadvantaged universities. The URM students that we need to recruit are found in universities that are disconnected from big research training programs.
If you’re serious about recruiting new URM students into science, who otherwise wouldn’t be in science, then you need to build provide opportunities to students at disadvantaged universities. This is not as easy as it sounds.
Genuine recruitment requires serious relationships with students, in which they trust their professors. Students don’t need just an awesome science experience; they need to see science as a viable career path. Once my URM students want to become scientists, their biggest roadblocks are likely to be their own families. Rich experiences, personal relationships and friendships are what makes a difference.
I can tell my students that they have access to certain opportunities far more easily than non-URM students, because they’re a rare and valued commodity. I tell them they could spend a summer doing research in Svalbard, maybe go to Antarctica, or the rainforest, or live in Australia for several months doing climate change research. Or they can spend the summer working in a local NASA facility. And they’re not jumping on board or applying in droves. This is not the thing for which they went to college. What looks like amazing opportunities to me looks like a distraction, and a huge inconvenience, to many URM students. Moreover, many of them literally can’t afford to take a summer research experience with a full stipend, because they’d lose gainful employment in the process.
They’re underrepresented in the sciences for a reason. It’s not that they’re not capable of doing science, it’s that they’re not oriented towards doing it.
To make more URM scientists, you need to make more URM scientists. You’ve got to create them from non-scientists, from people who never saw themselves as scientists. These students aren’t at your research institution. They’re at the technical college. They’re at the regional state university. They’re at the community college. If you’re at a research institution, the exact students that you need to diversify the discipline are not to be found at your institution.
To truly reach out to and recruit new URM students from disadvantaged institutions, you need to directly deal with faculty members who work these students on a daily basis. Their disadvantaged institutions can’t be seen as a mere source of students, but need to be seen as partners in mentorship.
The faculty members at disadvantaged institutions don’t have the capacity for mentoring students like you find at research institutions. They spend more time in the classroom, they don’t have big labs, and they don’t have postdocs and grad students. Research institutions that want URM students from disadvantaged institutions need to be able to help create that capacity. They need to give resources to enable the faculty at URM-serving institutions provide the mentorship that is necessary to create scientists.
There are a variety of “bridges” programs that have been devised to connect up such disadvantaged institutions with research institutions with greater resources. This kind of program, in theory, is exactly what is needed to grow more URM scientists. However, in my limited experience I have found that these bridges have been constructed of poor quality and the foremen don’t pay attention to potholes on the disadvantaged sides of the bridges. When these partnerships are genuine, they work. The disadvantaged institution needs to get plenty of resources to make sure that the required mentorship can happen. This means time, supplies, and travel. And all three cost money. But the lead institution — the advantaged side of the bridge — is inclined to only fund the partner as much as absolutely necessary to keep the bridge from collapsing. And URMs students are not inclined to cross such a rickety bridge.
I hear far too often from people who are running research training programs, who have trouble getting their URM numbers high enough for themselves or their funding agencies. Either recruitment falls short, or retention, or long-term outcomes are inadequate.
For them, my prescription is simple: go to disadvantaged universities which are replete with capable science majors who may have an open disposition to research. Don’t just ask these universities to ship students to you, but build genuine relationships with the faculty and students at these universities to provide mentorship opportunities. This takes time, it takes effort, and it takes money. The good and important things, though, shouldn’t come easily.