Innovations in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) — both in academia and biotechnology — have had a positive effect on society at the regional, national, and global levels. Research has shown that diversity among top leaders and problem-solvers is critical to fostering creativity and innovation in STEM. These efforts must involve welcoming and including women and those from underrepresented populations into the STEM workforce.
Jo Handelsman, PhD, the associate director for science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, made clear the imperative to diversify the STEM workforce under the Obama administration. “STEM innovation is key to America’s future,” she said. “We must draw on talent from every part of our society and capitalize on the extraordinary diversity of thought that comes with diversity of people.”
Diversity at all stages of the STEM pipeline is critical for increasing the number of people participating in innovative problem-solving in both academic and applied research in biotechnology, as diversity and inclusion lead to improved creativity and innovation — a concept that is supported by research from Lu Hong and Scott E. Page. Through their research on problem-solving agents, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, they demonstrated that a diverse team was able to outperform a homogeneous team of “high-ability” problem-solvers. The “relatively greater ability [of top problem-solvers] is more than offset by their lack of problem-solving diversity,” they explained. In other words, people from diverse backgrounds with diverse experiences will approach problems differently, and as a result, may devise more creative and groundbreaking solutions.
A lack of diversity in the scientific workforce is concerning, as it implies that considerable talent is being left out of the innovation enterprise. Recently, there has been a national call to action to reclaim America’s role as a global leader in science and technology. According to Handelsman, “Systemic barriers, such as implicit and explicit bias, present challenges to efforts to draw upon a diverse community in building a STEM workforce for the 21st century.”
More collaboration is needed to eliminate such barriers and to drive positive system transformation with evidence-based policies and practices. We must convene leaders, experts, and chief diversity officers from industry, academia, professional societies, and the government to not only discuss ways to reframe the national conversation on STEM-workforce diversity, but to also close the gap and grow the talent pool.
Encouraging Best Practices
Earlier this year, Salem State University in Massachusetts hosted a forum called A Stakeholders Roundtable that focused on excellence and innovation through diversity in the STEM workforce, which included discussions on models for communicating about diversity to the public in ways that reinforce diversity as an asset rather than a challenge. Participants included STEM employers and prospective members of the STEM workforce who shared lessons learned and best practices for ensuring an inclusive working environment, reducing implicit bias in the workplace, and retaining and advancing a diverse STEM workforce.
The event also featured presentations by students from the Youth Development Organization (YDO) in Lawrence, Mass., a nonprofit entrepreneurial organization that recruits underserved students while seeking partnerships, developing training concepts, and implementing comprehensive STEM programs. YDO allows high-achieving local middle and high school students to work in basic sciences laboratories year-round. This type of programming helps give students who have expressed a desire to pursue STEM careers the opportunity to do so.
Notably, Antonia Novello, MD — who served as the 14th U.S. Surgeon General and was the first woman and the first Hispanic ever to hold this position — spoke at the event. In her closing remarks, she stated, “By implementing a unique training paradigm based on an early-start model, a longitudinal training continuum, and a multi-institutional mentorship approach, we can refocus the landscape for entrepreneurship and innovation.”
Encouraging participation in STEM is certainly the first step to increasing diversity in these fields. At the K-12 level, best practices include providing near-peer mentors, role models who are similar in background to the students they are encouraging, and early and sustained opportunities to explore science through authentic research experiences. An example of a program that incorporates these best practices is the soon-to-launch Salem State STEM Opportunities Academy, which will focus on middle school girls from underrepresented minorities in the surrounding community. Female undergraduate STEM majors at Salem State will serve as tutors and mentors, while faculty and staff will serve as role models. Participants will work in teams and use the scientific method to answer questions from a variety of different STEM fields.
Additionally, the academy will provide opportunities for young people to explore different careers in STEM. Many of the participants will be first-generation college students, so including parents and guardians in the conversation is also critical. The goal of programs like the STEM Opportunities Academy is to encourage young women and those from underrepresented minorities to pursue STEM at the undergraduate level to increase the diversity of the STEM workforce.
An Economic Imperative
There is also a growing need for career guidance at the graduate and post-graduate levels to encourage diverse scientists to pursue careers across STEM fields, including biotechnology — an area of critical need. According to 2017 data from the Association for Women in Science, 75 percent of biotech firms have no women of color in any leadership positions, 86 percent have no women of color in senior management, 94 percent have none on their board of directors, 97 percent have none on their scientific advisory boards, and not one firm has any black or Hispanic women as CEOs or black women on their board of directors. Whereas women make up 47 percent of the overall workforce, they comprise only 39 percent of the STEM-educated workforce, and only 27 percent end up in a STEM career, according to national data. This leaves a large percentage of potential STEM talent out of the innovation enterprise.
Recent data also suggest that companies with more women in leadership positions often employ better practices and operate more efficiently; thus an economic case can be made for diversity. A 2014 survey by McKinsey & Company found that companies that maintain the strongest gender balance in leadership roles were more likely to report financial returns above their national industry median.
Cherie Butts, PhD, associate director of program leadership at Biogen Inc., emphasizes the impact of diversity on innovation in the scientific community. “It is our differences and richness in perspectives that will lead to a more comprehensive approach to addressing the most complex scientific questions,” she says. “We should take advantage of any opportunity to stand up and stand out. And if we get this right, scientific understanding and the scientific community will be immensely prosperous.”
Butts believes diversity is especially important in the development of medications. Including all populations in this process, she says, will lead to more innovation and better treatments. “Given the uncertainty of healthcare in the U.S., it is time for a disruptive approach to drug development. We must be more deliberate,” Butts says. “We need to bring together individuals with different experiences and perspectives — especially those in communities impacted by diseases of interest and who have difficulty accessing quality care — and scientists and clinicians [who are] developing novel drugs. This will ensure a forward-thinking approach to drug development that considers not only how a drug alleviates symptoms, but also how it will be made available to patients, including special attention paid to cost in order to eliminate health disparities.”
According to Kenneth Gibbs, PhD, a Cancer Prevention Fellow at the National Cancer Institute, increasing the diversity of women and minorities in STEM “leads to better problem-solving, expands the talent pool, and is important for long-term economic growth.” Perhaps moving away from diversity in STEM as a social imperative — even though it is one — and focusing on the financial and economic case for diversifying these professions might strengthen the argument.
Ultimately, we must start early to continue to build a large and diverse pipeline of STEM students who are trained to work effectively and collaboratively. We must provide them with information about the range of STEM careers in order to end up with a diverse table of decision-makers that will lead to increased creativity and innovation. That may be the table that finds the cure for a disease that changes the world.●
Lisa McBride, PhD, is the vice president for diversity and inclusion at Salem State University. She is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board.