In This Issue
Women in Engineering
June 1, 1999 Volume 29 Issue 2

Increasing Diversity in the Engineering Workforce

Tuesday, June 1, 1999

Author: Neal Lane

Scientists and engineers with diverse backgrounds, interests, and cultures can produce better scientific and technological results, as well as ensure the best uses of those results.

Earlier this month, the National Science Foundation (NSF) reported some positive news in its 1998 report on Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering (1999):

  • The number of women and minorities enrolled and earning undergraduate science and engineering degrees continues to increase.
  • Between 1982 and 1994, the percentage of black, Hispanic, and American Indian students taking basic and advanced math courses doubled.
  • The gender gap in K-12 mathematics achievement has, for the most part, disappeared.

However, not all of the news NSF reported was good. Despite the gains, women, minorities, and persons with disabilities remain underrepresented in science and engineering fields. You have come together this week because much work remains to be done if we hope to eliminate this deficiency in the twenty-first century.

I think we all are pretty clear about why underrepresentation in science and engineering is a serious problem for our nation, but let me give you three reasons:

  • Careers in science and engineering are immensely rewarding, and all Americans should have the opportunity to participate -- it’s what America is all about.
  • Scientists and engineers with diverse backgrounds, interests, and cultures can produce better scientific and technological results, as well as ensure the best uses of those results.
  • We simply need people with the best minds and skills, and many of those people are women, many are persons with disabilities, and many are persons of diverse ethnic groups and nationalities.

Through this summit you have addressed one of the greatest challenges facing this nation. I hope you will share with me and others in the administration what you have learned in this conference, and what you will learn as you carry out the action plans you have proposed today. We will be most successful if we work together to increase the participation of women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in the science, engineering, and technology workforce.

President Clinton and Vice President Gore want every American to have the chance to reach his or her dreams. Education and training are the pillars of that commitment. They have asked me to advise them on what actions the federal government should take to build a workforce for the global economy that reflects our great diversity. Such a workforce must include the finest scientists and engineers in the world.

Today I would like to discuss some of the actions the administration has taken -- through the National Science and Technology Council and through individual agencies -- to help create the science, engineering, and technology workforce of the future.

First, I want to describe some innovative programs in K-12 education. Then I will spend some time previewing the likely recommendations of an interagency working group formed last fall at President Clinton’s direction. He asked for advice on how to achieve greater diversity throughout the U.S. scientific and technical workforce, and I want to try out some of our preliminary thinking on you today.

Our first and greatest challenge is to make science accessible to all Americans, especially our children. Our world is increasingly technological. Science, mathematics, engineering, and technology surround us in the classroom, the home, and the workplace. Prosperity in the twenty-first century will hinge on how we handle this knowledge and technology, and on what we do now to develop scientific and technical talent in our youth.

We have a long way to go. Science and technology may be always with us, but in many ways our era still resembles the situation in the 1950s, which compelled Rachel Carson to write: "We assume that knowledge of science is the prerogative of only a small number of human beings, isolated and priest like in their laboratories. This is not true. The materials of science are the materials of life itself. Science is part of the reality of living; it is the what, the how, and the why of everything in our experience."

Two New Education Programs
All kids start out wanting to know "the what, the how, and the why" about their world. It is up to us -- as parents, teachers, and citizens -- to sustain that curiosity, and the joy of science and math, throughout their school years. I am sure you are already familiar with the major programs in the Department of Education (DOE) and NSF, where the focus typically has been on broad-based reform. Today I want to review two relatively new efforts: the first is a remarkable new partnership between NSF, DOE, and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) to conduct large-scale education research; the second is an initiative by a relative newcomer to the K-12 education effort -- the Department of Commerce.

The NSF/DOE/NICHD partnership started with the recognition that advances in education and student learning depend in no small part on rigorous and sustained research. Indeed, state and local policymakers, as well as school-level administrators, are clamoring for information about what works to guide their decisions.

Historically, investments in educational research have been insubstantial. President Clinton’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) pointed out in 1997 that we spend more than $300 billion on K-12 public education each year, but we spend less than 0.1 percent of that amount on the examination and improvement of educational practice. That’s far less than what it ought to be by comparison with almost any sector of industry. PCAST has recommended significant increases to fund a large-scale research program on education in general, and on educational technology in particular.

In response, the federal government launched the Interagency Education Research Initiative (IERI). This year the IERI will emphasize three key research areas: school readiness; learning core subjects, including math and science, in the early grades; and teacher training. We expect the IERI to tell us what works in K-12 education and how to make it work in diverse settings.

Teacher training has long been a priority for NSF and DOE, and their ongoing and new programs are vitally important. Today, however, I want to highlight an effort by a relatively new player in this area of growing interest -- the Commerce Department’s National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST). NIST and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) have joined forces to address the imminent math and science teacher shortage.

Partnerships Between Schools and Businesses
We have started a pilot program that partners school boards with local businesses to recruit and hire math, science, and technology teachers and provide them with full-year salaries (as opposed to typical nine-month teacher salaries) for at least four years. Business leaders will guarantee summer employment for the teachers and support the development of teaching methods that incorporate real-world experience.

The partnership builds a network for transferring knowledge from the classroom to the workplace and back again. We anticipate several benefits from this initiative:

  • Kids will get better math and science teachers.
  • Graduates will have a better chance of securing jobs in their communities.
  • Companies will have a better chance of getting workers with the skills they need.
  • Teachers will get better salaries.

Including NIST in our efforts to improve K-12 education has brought new ideas and perspectives to this issue -- the very result we hope for by increasing diversity throughout science, engineering, and technology.

The federal government’s interest in science and math education does not end when children graduate from high school. We take an interest in the science, engineering, and technology pipeline from beginning to end. Many federal agencies have made major commitments to encouraging students, including women and minorities, to choose careers in science, engineering, and technology. But it hasn’t been enough. Margaret Mead said in 1949 that "we need every human gift and cannot afford to neglect any gift because of artificial barriers of sex or race or class or national origin." The nation -- not just the federal government, but all sectors of the economy -- must take that statement to heart before we are through.

So where are the other sectors of the economy on this issue? In 1998, my office held a dialogue for President Clinton’s Initiative on Race. We convened representatives from government, industry, and academia to discuss how to address America’s science and technology challenges in the twenty-first century. Some very thoughtful observations and models for action emerged from that discussion. I took particular note of the comments of Cathleen Barton, director of Partnering for Workforce Development Programs at SEMATECH/ Intel Corporation. She said, very succinctly, that education is a business, economic, and workforce development imperative (Barton, 1998). She described SEMATECH’s decision to sponsor a program that would address the projected shortage of skilled operators and technicians, focusing on the community and technical colleges as primary suppliers. From June 1996 to September 1997, the SEMATECH program increased the number of colleges offering semiconductor manufacturing programs by 50 percent, and increased enrollment in semiconductor manufacturing programs by 110 percent.

We need more success stories like that. I believe the administration should engage in a national dialogue with private industry, academia, and local government and community leaders to identify the barriers that inhibit the full participation of women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in the nation’s science, engineering, and technology workforce. We can work with the private sector to overcome those barriers by ensuring that the companies who depend on this workforce know about best practices that lead to increased participation of the affected groups. The interagency working group convened last fall at the president’s direction is hard at work on building this national dialogue.

I expect the working group to make a number of recommendations for the president’s action. It is likely we can do more, for instance, to facilitate key transition points in education. We have some excellent models of success to build on. A great example is the Bridges Program at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which helps minority students at two-year community colleges make the transition to four-year colleges, and students in master’s degree programs to make the transition to doctoral programs. Two successful NSF initiatives -- the Advanced Technological Education Program and Alliances for Minority Participation -- may also be transferable to other agencies.

We may also try to enhance support for undergraduate and graduate education. Ideally, this support would include general financial aid as well as outreach and recruitment, mentoring programs, counseling and academic support, internships, and other practical training experiences. NSF and NIH, as well as NASA, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other research and development agencies, have well-grounded programs ripe for expansion.

I particularly want to encourage agencies to think about diversity as a part of everything they do, not just special programs. The Department of Energy has done this with its contracting process for the national laboratories, with great success at Los Alamos. And NSF recently adopted new merit review criteria, which are used to identify and fund the best research proposals. One of the new criteria addresses societal impacts, including human resource development and contributions to increased diversity. We have a long way to go before all agencies think this way all the time.

We hope that our national dialogue with industry will encourage businesses to support undergraduate and graduate education, perhaps through privately administered funds devoted to awarding science and engineering scholarships to women, minorities, and persons with disabilities. Companies and federal agencies should also be encouraged to form partnerships with community colleges near their operations sites to provide students with relevant skills. The Los Alamos partnership with community colleges in New Mexico is a model for action in this area.

Additional Research Needed
Last, but never least, we should conduct additional research. The federal government should take the lead in fully understanding the dimensions of the human resources challenge in the science, engineering, and technology workforce. Research areas should include the demographics of this workforce, the value of diversity in science and engineering research and application, and barriers to participation.

To conclude my remarks, I want to cite President Clinton, who said: "First, science and its benefits must be delivered toward making life better for all Americans -- never just a privileged few. . . . Science must not create a new line of separation between the haves and the have-nots, those with and those without the tools and understanding to learn and use technology. . . . Science can serve the values and interests of all Americans, but only if all Americans are given a chance to participate in science."

I agree with the president, and we are taking seriously his admonition to open science, engineering, and technology careers to all Americans. But at the same time, we must remain an open society -- a society that welcomes immigrants and visitors from foreign lands -- if we are to succeed at anything, especially science. I want to quote one more brilliant woman, Pearl Buck, who said, "Exclusion is always dangerous. Inclusion is the only safety if we are to have a peaceful world."

No matter how successful we are in recruiting Americans into the science, engineering, and technology workforce, there has always been and must always be a place for foreign workers if we are to remain the world’s leader in this enterprise. I believe this view is widely shared, and I hope that cooler heads will ultimately prevail on Capitol Hill, and that we will go no further down the path of exclusion.

I want to close by repeating what I said at the outset about why underrepresentation of women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in science and engineering is so important to our nation’s future.

  • Everyone deserves a chance to become a scientist or an engineer; these are, without question, among the most exciting and fulfilling careers available.
  • Science and engineering are vitally important to this nation’s future, and we need all the best minds concentrated on advancing our knowledge and skills in those areas.
  • Homogeneity makes us stale -- we need diverse backgrounds and perspectives to keep our lead in this age of innovation.

Please work with me -- with all of us in the White House and federal agencies -- to put the face of America on science and engineering. It will make for a better America, and for a better world.

Barton, Cathleen. 1998. Partnering for workforce development: A model for increasing the supply of skilled workers. Paper presented at Meeting America’s Needs for the Scientific and Technology Challenges of the Twenty-First Century: A White House Roundtable Dialogue for President Clinton’s Initiative on Race, Washington, D.C., February 13.

National Science Foundation (NSF). 1999. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 1998 (NSF 99-338). Arlington, Va.: NSF.

About the Author:Neal Lane is assistant to the president for science and technology and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. This article is a revised version of the talk he gave 18 May 1999 during the NAE Summit on Women in Engineering.