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Harvard talk addresses diversity in science faculty

Sandra Larson | 11/11/2009, 4:34 a.m.

Racial and ethnic minorities traditionally underrepresented in biological and biomedical science fields are earning doctoral degrees at a higher rate in the United States than ever before — but they continue to lag far behind in reaching faculty positions at research universities and medical schools.

The sobering message was delivered by Dr. Joel Oppenheim last month at a lecture sponsored by Harvard Medical School’s Office for Diversity and Community Partnership. Oppenheim is senior associate dean for biomedical sciences, professor of microbiology and director of the Sackler Institute for Graduate Biomedical Sciences at New York University School of Medicine.

“Science by its very nature knows no boundaries,” Oppenheim said. “ … It’s the epitome of diversity. And those individuals that carry it out must represent that diversity.”

As minorities become the majority in this country in the next 25 or 30 years, he said, diversity is only going to become more crucial.

“[But] at the present time,” he said, “the science workforce at research-intensive universities and medical schools comes nowhere close to representing this diversity.”

The underrepresented minority (URM) groups — blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders—make up only 3.8 percent of tenure and tenure track biological science professors at top universities, and only 2.0 percent of science faculty at medical schools.

Oppenheim’s slide presentation showed that 2007 census figures indicate that these groups represent 29 percent of U.S. population, but they received only 6.5 percent of the Ph.D.s awarded in biological and biomedical sciences that year. That’s up from 2.0 percent in 1980.

Since the 1970s, many programs have tried to address the problem of lack of minority representation in the sciences, said Oppenheim. These programs have come at great cost — billions of dollars have been spent by government agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, and by private sector entities such as foundations and corporations, he said.

As a result, teaching and facilities have been improved at minority-serving institutions, and the number of minority students going on to medical school or graduate school in biological and biomedical sciences has seen a two- or threefold increase.

These are steps forward, he said, but there has been little or no increase in minority faculty members at major research universities and medical schools.

He called this a “pipeline issue,” involving all areas of education—K-12, undergraduate college education, graduate school, post-doctoral research, and academic faculty.

Oppenheim’s expertise is in the latter stages of that pipeline, and in this talk he discussed where the pipeline is “leaking” at the higher levels. One such leak occurs when minorities attain Ph.D.s but do not move on to post-doctoral fellowships.

“As we all know, post-doctoral fellowships are really a prerequisite if you want to go on to academia,” he said.

While about 60 percent of all U.S. Ph.D.s in the biological and biomedical sciences go on to post-doctoral fellowships, only about 35 percent of minorities do so.

Where minority high-achievers are heading instead of academia is not well-documented. Some may leave the field of science; some may choose to become medical doctors instead of researchers or professors. Some join nongovernmental organizations like the Clinton Foundation, Oppenheim said. And certainly some are turning to private industry, which he acknowledged has done a better job than academia of recruiting minority employees.