Diversity in STEM Part 3: Why Science Funding is Critical to Diversity in STEM

The benefits of increased diversity in the sciences are abundantly clear. We explore some of the struggles and opportunities for diversity in science, technology, engineering and math careers in Milwaukee in our new series Diversity in STEM. If you missed the first two parts of this series, you can read them here and here.

When underrepresented minority students (URMs) desire a career in STEM but simply don’t see any path to achieve it, these organizations provide the support that lights their way. While their combined effort undoubtedly strengthens diversity in STEM fields, the continuing minority gap in the STEM ecosystem suggests the U.S. will need even more resources to close it. The ominous reality, however, is that science funding is under threat. The “trickle down” effect of limited funding in public science is that less opportunities exist for all students to become involved through internships, outreach, undergraduate research, or grant and scholarship programs. Scientists who serve as mentors to the next generation can only donate so much of their personal time to education and outreach when their very jobs are at risk and their ability to do research is stunted. Under a tightened budget, laboratories are limited to fewer paid undergraduate student assistants, hurting the opportunity for students in STEM to get valuable practical experience during their education. Scholarships, grants, and K-12 science education programs that are sponsored by publicly funded groups like the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), or the McNair Program dry up when the funding for these organizations are cut. Such funding need not be targeted specifically to URMs to disproportionately hurt those students. Inner city schools are a major focus of K-12 science education programs. Suffocating their funding almost exclusively eliminates exposure to STEM for minority grade-school students; most who would have few other opportunities in their lives to appreciate the wonders of science. Without much personal wealth or family support, many URMs also struggle to participate in costly STEM programs without scholarships or grants; laboratories commonly determine their very acceptance of students based on a student’s ability to fund themselves.

Having demonstrated the economic value of increasing diversity in STEM fields, it is clear we only hurt ourselves as a nation when we limit the ability of underrepresented minorities to enter the STEM workforce. We rob Peter to pay Paul in many ways when we cut funding to basic science research, but the STEM barrier raised against URM students is another critical yet highly overlooked potential cost of science budget slashing. The mission statement of the March for Science targets these very issues in calling for “robustly funded and publicly communicated science.” These are pillars of a prosperous society and functioning democracy because science is empowerment. Science empowers our ability to understand the complexity of our world and to make better decisions, but it also empowers those in underprivileged circumstances to actually feel a dose of the “American Dream” by opening a world of possibilities for them to achieve and contribute to civilization. When we embrace this idea, we open ourselves to vast possibilities to flourish as a society and as an economy. Cristal Sanchez is looking ahead to a promising career in biomedical sciences. She is applying to graduate programs now and hopes to continue finding scholarship support throughout her education. Her success is a testament to what can be achieved by anyone, from any background, with the right influence. We will be lucky to see many more like her in the years ahead.

This is why we must all March for Science. This is why we must fight for science together, as a diverse group uniting for a science-empowered society that is within our sight, but not yet within our grasp.

Written by Brandon Gross for the Milwaukee Area Science Advocates (MASA)

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