The US must broaden onramps to the STEM workforce

Imagine an unfortunate world where Americans depend upon competitors for innovation, breakthroughs and technological progress. In such a world, we won’t create the first universal quantum computer or solve the mystery of dark matter. Nor will we create the next vaccine. Instead, we would have to forgo solving scientific mysteries, purchase breakthroughs from other countries and get in line with everyone else.

Such scenarios once seemed far-fetched. But indicators show they are becoming increasingly more likely. Earlier this year, the United States fell out of the top 10 of the Bloomberg Innovation Index and also now ranks ninth globally in research and development spending as a percentage of the gross domestic product. 

Maintaining our global competitiveness is an urgent problem, and creating a stronger, more diverse workforce in an environment of rapid cycles of innovation and STEM developments is key to competition. A recent report by the American Physical Society (APS) titled, “Building America’s STEM Workforce: Eliminating Barriers and Unlocking Advantages,” points out that the country must do a better job of attracting women, racial and ethnic minorities, and rural Americans to the U.S. scientific and technical workforce. Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan, Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), refers to the “missing millions,” as people who are capable of succeeding in science, technology, engineering and math fields, but have no access to pathways to get them there.  

Enabling the “missing millions” to participate in U.S. STEM isn’t just a path to establishing equity; it is the path to restoring U.S. competitiveness in science and technology. According to the 2020 NSF Science & Engineering Indicators, for example, members of underrepresented minorities represented approximately 15 percent of the U.S. science and engineering workforce and more than 28 percent of the U.S. population (ages 21 and up). These percentages point to a clear opportunity for building the STEM workforce with talented and capable U.S. citizens who just need an on-ramp.

Noting the importance of diversity in boosting innovation and productivity, the APS report states that one way to achieve that goal is by expanding opportunities for students from underrepresented groups or underserved areas to participate in research, a high-impact practice for student retention and workforce strengthening and diversification.

Fortunately, leaders of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology have a perspective similar to the report’s recommendation, and they included an important provision in the bipartisan NSF for the Future Act. That provision would establish a pilot program to create meaningful, lasting partnerships between major research institutions and emerging research institutions — colleges and universities that have smaller research footprints and capacity, due, in part, to monetary and equipment constraints.

If enacted into law, the legislation would require NSF to direct at least 25 percent of any multi-institutional award exceeding $1 million to emerging research institutions to build research capacity, which could include purchasing new equipment or providing paid research experiences for undergraduate students. The legislation also includes an important review and assessment of the program. The full House Committee on Science, Space and Technology is slated to mark up the bill in the coming weeks.

The benefits of creating this partnership pilot-program would be substantial, both for students and faculty members. For example, students with little formal research training could gain meaningful experience in a laboratory setting, using cutting-edge equipment that otherwise would not have been available. Meanwhile, lead investigators could develop powerful insights into the lived experiences of non-traditional and underrepresented students, as well as strengthen their scientific knowledge through partnerships with major universities. 

By strengthening partnerships between research-intensive universities and emerging research institutions, the NSF for the Future Act would help address funding inequities. According to the American Physical Society report, of the 637 universities that received federal R&D funding in 2018 for science and engineering, 78 percent — of which the vast majority are emerging research institutions — received only 10 percent of the funding, despite serving 57 percent of all students attending those types of institutions. Further, these institutions served 68 percent of Pell Grant recipients and 66 percent of underrepresented minority students. Said another way: Two-thirds of our nation’s students of color at research institutions see only about 10 percent of the federal R&D dollars. 

The NSF for the Future Act addresses this funding disparity not by cutting research to research-intensive universities, but by growing the resources so emerging research institutions can be meaningfully supported. This proposed partnership with emerging research institutions addresses two imperatives: excellence in research and diversifying opportunities in science. Faculty and students at emerging research institutions are fully capable of performing world-class research; all they need is the opportunity to do so.  

In sum, the current funding structure has led to the majority of students from underrepresented groups, as well as those receiving Pell Grants, having limited or no opportunity to engage in research. So while increased global competitiveness demands that we bolster our STEM workforce, we are actively shutting students out, possibly leaving us in a world dominated by our competitors. We are foregoing a tremendous opportunity to harness the power of the “missing millions.” 

For our nation to continue to be a global leader in science, technology and innovation, new approaches are required. The pilot partnership model put forward in the NSF for the Future Act would be a strong start — increasing research capacity and providing meaningful research experiences to a broader set of students. To build a strong future, we need to provide a broader onramp to the STEM workforce.

James Gates, Jr., Ph.D., is president of the American Physical Society and director of the Brown Center for Theoretical Physics. Gerald C. Blazey, Ph.D., is vice president for Research and Innovation Partnerships at Northern Illinois University. 

Tags Engineering education Experiential learning Mathematics education National Science Board National Science Foundation Science Science education Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics

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