Masters candidate in International Science and Technology Policy
Elliott School, George Washington University
On April 15, 2021, the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa and the Institute for International Science and Technology Policy at the George Washington University hosted Sethuraman Panchanathan, the Director of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), as part of the 2021 Bromley Memorial Event. This blog is an adaptation of the author’s remarks.
This is a really exciting time for science. We're on the verge of finding solutions to many of the major issues the world is facing—in security, health, energy and more. There's no clearer example of the impact that science and technology solutions can have than the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic response, including the accelerated vaccine development.
This success would not have been possible without the professionals who dedicated themselves to the response. To accomplish the country’s science and technology ambitions, it's crucial that we have a strong workforce that includes an incoming pipeline of students and researchers with diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and passions.
In the United States, our science and technology workforce is not as strong as it can be. There are people throughout the country who are capable of succeeding as scientists and engineers but do not have access to the pathways that lead into those careers. Sethuraman Panchanathan, the Director of the National Science Foundation, calls these Americans the “missing millions.” By addressing these “missing millions” and creating more pathways for people of all backgrounds to join the science and technology workforce, we can unlock the potential to accomplish more of our ambitions.
To make this happen, it's very important that we make the science and technology workforce a welcoming place for everyone. In my research for UNESCO with Professor Vonortas and Connor Rabb on how the US is fairing on a number of science technology indicators, it's clear that while there have been some increases in the number of women and other underrepresented groups in the science and technology workforce, we are not making progress at the pace needed to address the world's problems.
This is why I really admire Sethuraman Panchanathan and the Biden Administration’s commitment to improving the speed and scale at which we address inclusivity. Right now, the science and technology workforce is only 30 percent women and only 13 percent people of color—much lower than each group’s representation in both the US workforce and the US population overall.
What we've learned about how we can address this challenge is that people need to be supported through a variety of channels. This can be done through relationships, mentorships, and allyships, which I've been really fortunate to have found at GWU. Universities play an important role in welcoming new entrants to the science and technology community, and the experience that students and researchers have there is the first step to whether they feel included and at home in this field. When universities are inclusive and supportive, they provide important pathways for future scientists and engineers, especially through partnerships with industry and government. But it needs to be a concerted effort and also a very conscious effort. This is exactly why platforms like the Bromley Memorial Event are so important. This is where we grow our networks and our relationships, including between generations and across geographic divides.
This is especially important in the context of COVID-19, which has made relationship building efforts both more important and more challenging. The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women, people of color, and other vulnerable populations that are underrepresented in the science and technology field. While engaging virtually, it can be more difficult for these groups to find the relationships and support that they need to be successful in this industry.
We are facing an uphill battle, but it is inspiring to see the commitment of everyone here to encourage the next generation, by building relationships with the next generation of students and researchers, so that everyone can be welcome in this field and picture a career and a future for themselves here. As a young person and as a woman, I'm very excited for what my generation and the future generations can accomplish with the support of the science and technology community.