Inclusion is our roadmap back to global science dominance

Every tax-payer dollar invested in biomedical research yields up to three times the benefit to the U.S. economy, making our push towards science dominance more imperative than ever. The emergence of COVID19 has prompted a global vaccine race, the need to protect national assets in lower earth orbit has motivated the creation of the U.S. Space Force, and strategies to ameliorate the impacts of global climate change continue to shape our international alliances. Each of these U.S. science thrusts offers the potential for profound economic benefits in the geopolitical arena. They also highlight important security risks. 

With a growing appreciation for foreign threats to our scientific, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) research enterprise, some have proposed mitigation policies centered on expunging or banning foreign scientists from preventing their access to U.S. technology and intellectual property. At their worst, these policies have the potential to demolish our nation’s long-held and growth-promoting strategy of facilitating the immigration of science talent from across the world. Even under the best circumstances, for which these policies are selectively and surgically applied to the foreign scientists that truly present a security threat, they only amount to playing defense. The pathway back to global science dominance will require a decisive offensive strategy as well.  Adopted into law in January 2017, the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (AICA) sponsored by Sen. Corey Gardner (R-Colo.) laid out such an offensive strategy for promoting U.S. innovation and maintaining our nation’s competitiveness in the global arena.

The U.S. National Science Board established that the European Union and China have trained scientists and engineers at a rate that outpaces the U.S. over the last two decades. Since “projections indicate that 54 percent of the population will be a member of a racial or ethnic minority group by 2050,” the AICA targeted women and racial/ethnic groups underrepresented in science as our nation’s largest opportunity to reverse this trend. Indeed, “women [currently] hold only 25 percent of all tenured and tenure-track positions in STEM fields in our Nation’s universities and 4-year colleges, and Black and Hispanic faculty together hold about 6.5 percent of all tenured and tenure-track positions.” Thus, the AICA advanced a bold agenda to buttress our nation’s education and training systems to promote the recruitment and development of women and minorities in STEM fields. The offensive strategy laid out by the AICA was based on winning a numbers game.  

In April 2020, a landmark study in the Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S. revealed the full and striking potential for the AICA’s investments in women and minorities to return the U.S. to global science dominance. Using machine learning to analyze the long-term outcome of nearly every STEM Ph.D. awarded in the U.S. over the last 40 years ( around 1.2 million), the authors discovered that women and individuals from diverse backgrounds were substantially more likely to innovate in their fields. Since diversity is uniquely woven into the American tapestry, the AICA had not simply advanced a strategy based on a numbers game, and it had also inadvertently laid out an explosive strategy to catapult U.S. innovation and establish our nation’s global science dominance for the next half-century. 

Critically, the study also revealed that while women and minority scientists were more likely to innovate, their innovations were less likely to be adopted by their fields at large. Thus, the strategy advanced by AICA will not be enough on its own. To capitalize on our nation’s unique and latent strength of diversity, we must also transform our nation’s STEM ecosystem to increase the uptake of innovations from the groups for which we strive to expand participation. 

University and research centers must, at long last, prioritize the training and development of women and minorities in STEM fields, including countering the impact of institutional bias on tenure processes.  STEM industries must aggressively hire and promote women and minority scientists into key leadership roles. The Department of Education and the National Science foundation must prioritize testing innovative strategies to promote early minority STEM participation. Finally, Congress must pass targeted laws that close persistent federal grant funding and contracting gaps for women and underrepresented minority scientists in STEM fields in a manner that mirrors precedents established and refined through the Small Business Administration’s scorecards. Strategies to mitigate near term security threats are warranted, but if we are to win in the global arena, we must implement an offensive strategy. Inclusion, not expulsion, is our roadmap back to global science dominance. 

Kafui Dzirasa, M.D., Ph.D., is a National Institutes of Health funded brain researcher at Duke University. He is also a public engagement fellow for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


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