Saying bold steps are needed to improve racial, ethnic, and gender diversity in science, the influential Howard Hughes Medical Institute on Thursday announced a $2 billion plan to accelerate inclusion and equity efforts throughout the academic science pipeline, from supporting community college students to adding 200 biomedical science professors from underrepresented groups to the nation’s colleges and universities.
The new plan was years in the making but is being unveiled with a sense of urgency at a time of racial reckoning across the country and throughout science, where just a fraction of professors are Black, Hispanic, or Native American/Alaskan Native. The 10-year plan — called potentially transformational in its scope and approach by one leader in the effort to diversity STEM fields — is meeting with wide praise, but also some criticism.
The new initiative will fund researchers from groups underrepresented in science, including women, and will reach back further in the academic pipeline to help underrepresented students, trainees, and faculty scientists in a variety of ways. HHMI will support undergraduates in STEM majors; provide 200 post-baccalaureate training spots in the labs of HHMI-backed investigators; fund 500 grants for those seeking doctoral degrees; mentor students and faculty; add 200 new underrepresented biomedical faculty by expanding its Hanna H. Gray Fellows Program; and launch extensive training programs aimed at making the culture of science more inclusive.
“After the death of George Floyd and this racial reckoning, I felt like we needed to do something to make a big commitment,” said Erin O’Shea, a chemist who set diversity as one of her top priorities when she became president of HHMI five years ago. “We wanted to do something that would have an impact nationally and serve as a model for others to follow.”
HHMI is a powerful and agenda-setting scientific philanthropy with a $22.6 billion endowment. It supports roughly 300 scientists at more than 60 U.S. universities and research institutions with lucrative, multi-year grants of roughly $9 million each. While HHMI has promoted diversity through smaller programs for years, O’Shea said those efforts have not been “coherent or systematic.” The institution’s major awards, meanwhile, have long been seen as prizes that are elusive and elite, and they have gone largely to white investigators, something O’Shea is trying to change.
“The first thing I thought is, my goodness, I won’t be alone anymore,” Erich D. Jarvis, a professor at Rockefeller University who studies the neural and genetic basis of language acquisition, said of the HHMI plan. In 2008, he became the second Black scientist to become a Howard Hughes investigator, and in 2018 became Rockefeller’s first Black tenured professor. “You want to have a proud distinction of being first, but then you think this should not be,” he said.
“This is $2 billion, which is what it costs to run entire institutes,” said Jarvis, who spoke to HHMI leaders about issues of diversity after Floyd’s murder. “To me, this is like they are setting up an institute for diversity within the Howard Hughes system. This could make a dent in things.”
Studies show less than 2% of college professors in scientific fields are Black, roughly 3% are Hispanic, and far less than 1% are Native American or Alaskan Native, numbers that have not changed despite various diversity efforts at the federal and university level in recent years. For both whites and Asian Americans, representation in scientific fields exceeds their population share.
Many say this lack of diversity is hampering scientific progress, because many scholars with differing experiences are being left out. “Our ultimate objective is to diversify the professoriate,” said O’Shea. “Those professors have a catalytic effect. One professor affects hundreds of students, maybe more.”
The move met with applause from many working to diversify STEM, including Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Through its Meyerhoff Scholars Program, UMBC produces more Black undergraduates who go on to earn Ph.D.s in the natural sciences or engineering (including Moderna Covid-19 vaccine co-developer Kizzmekia Corbett) than any other college in the country. He said many efforts to diversify science have clearly not succeeded. “Ten years ago, 2.2% of Ph.D.s in the natural sciences and engineering were Black. Today it’s 2.3%. We really have not moved the needle,” he said.
Hrabowski called the plan potentially transformational and said he was especially excited to see that it will invest in scientists at many stages of their career paths. HHMI has funded an investigator at UMBC and has paid to replicate the Meyerhoff program at other institutions; the new plan seeks to replicate some of UMBC’s success on a larger scale at 24 research universities.
For undergraduates, Freeman said, it is critical that underrepresented students who have entered college excited by science are supported so they don’t drop out of their majors after a difficult chemistry course their first semester. “This is where we lose a lot of people. We still call STEM courses ‘weed-out’ courses. We need to change the culture,” he said. “And we need to support people from undergrad through career success many years later.”
Jarvis agreed. He said he was supported as an undergraduate and graduate student by programs that help offset disadvantages and racism he’d experienced as a Black man growing up in poor parts of New York City. “But then you get to the post-doc phase and you’re on your own and the disadvantages don’t necessarily disappear.”
The science pipeline is especially leaky, for people from ethnic and racial minorities and women, during the faculty job search. “This is where a lot of people fall off,” said Amita Sehgal, an HHMI investigator and chronobiologist at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Sehgal said she is seeing hopeful signs in an increased number of Black and Hispanic graduate students, but said it would take sustained support, like that provided in the new HHMI plan, to ensure their long-term success. “You want to make sure these kinds of efforts have lasting impact. That this is a 10-year plan says a lot.”
Many underrepresented students also drop out of science due to a lack of confidence, “imposter syndrome,” not having role models that look like them, or a lack of support from their professors. Many praised the HHMI plan’s focus on fixing institutional problems, like outright discrimination, low expectations, and a lack of culturally sensitive mentorship, that can impede the success of underrepresented students.
“It is a disservice to fund individuals to come into environments that continue to drive them away,” said Angela Byars-Winston, a professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health who led a 2019 National Academy of Science study on effective mentoring in STEM fields. “We know there are things institutions can do to change the environment instead of focusing on students who are not broken.”
The new plan will include training, education, and incentives for faculty and university departments that receive HHMI funding and mentees. “This addresses what I call the will/skill gap,” said Byars-Winston. “Faculty have the will to address cultural diversity, but not the skills to do so.”
Kelly Mack, the vice president of undergraduate STEM education at the American Association of Colleges and Universities, said the large amount of money being spent on the effort was significant, but also important was the fact that HHMI leaders were introspective about their own lack of diversity among their leadership, award recipients, and staff. When unveiling its plan, HHMI revealed demographic data showing that 79% of its investigators and lab heads at its Janelia Research Campus are white and 77% are male. Less than 3% are Hispanic and just 1.2% are Black.
“This is something that is often overlooked. They’ve been very critical of themselves,” said Mack. “They are not just asking other institutions to change without paying attention to these issues internally.”
But some looked at the plan with a more critical eye. Lola Eniola-Adefeso, a professor of chemical engineering and associate dean for graduate and professional education at the University of Michigan, is a Black woman who knows first-hand the benefits of effective support in science education. A Maryland native, she started out in community college before transferring to UMBC and joining its Meyerhoff program. “It was the first time instructors assumed I was smart,” she said. “I went from getting Cs in community college to getting As and A+s.”
“I’m first-generation. I had no idea if I didn’t go to MIT it would be hard to get a faculty position,” she said. “I didn’t even know what a Ph.D. was.” The program, she said, supported her, funded her, and mentored her so she had the time and opportunity to do the scientific research that’s been key to her success in the fields of cell adhesion and the development of smart materials for drug delivery. That direct support, she said, is something the HHMI plan could improve on.
The plan will fund 200 students to do post-baccalaureate research, to help overcome barriers to doing undergraduate research underrepresented students can face if they need to work to afford college and are left without adequate time for lab jobs or unpaid internships. “This is actually annoying,” Eniola-Adefeso said. “Why don’t they just set up scholarships for the undergraduates? That’s what worked for me.”
“They are saying, we’ll just watch you flounder, and then if you make it we’ll hire you for a year or two to work and then you can start on your Ph.D.,” she said. “That’s saying you need to do extra stuff because you’re not good enough off the bat, and it puts people two years behind their peers.”
She was also critical of HHMI’s Gilliam Fellowships for Advanced Study program, which funds graduate students from underrepresented groups and will be expanded under the new plan, because it requires recipients to do an extensive amount of outreach and diversity work not required by white graduate students who are awarded fellowships.
“In some ways, that’s shooting these people in the foot,” she said. “It means they have less time for research. When they get to the hiring phase, committees look at publications and scientific impact, not how many high school students you mentored.”
Eniola-Adefeso said she was excited by the amount of funding HHMI was dedicating to diversity efforts but said the plan could be improved with more input from those who are underrepresented in science. “If you don’t set up your program right, what could be game changing could instead end up yielding more of the same — no change.”
O’Shea said her institution was committed to the plan and taking a scientific approach to being accountable about its success: collecting data, tracking results, and sharing them publicly. She said she did receive some pushback from scientists who pointed to HHMI’s reputation for selectivity — more than 30 HHMI investigators have received Nobel prizes, including one more this month. “There are people who question whether we can have both excellence and diversity or if they are at odds with one another,” she said. “I think it’s pretty clear they are not.”