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Promoting Diversity in Science [Alliance blog]

Dr. Freeman Hrabowski’s career as a champion for diversity in mathematics, engineering, and science began in one of the least likely places: a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama. At age 12, Hrabowski joined Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to march with over a thousand children to stand against segregation, leading him to spend five nights in jail. Over the five decades that followed, he went on to receive a Ph.D. in higher education administration/statistics and become president of the first fully integrated university in Maryland: University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).

Channeling his analytical mind, deep life experience, and strong sense of empathy, Hrabowski co-founded UMBC’s preeminent Meyerhoff Scholars Program, which supports underrepresented minorities who go on to pursue advanced degrees and research careers in science, mathematics, and engineering.

During our most recent webinar, Scientific Research in Challenging Times, Hrabowski joined Dr. Robert Tjian, Science Philanthropy Alliance senior science advisor and former president at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, to discuss the state of racial equality in science, as well as the opportunities and obstacles we all face to make progress on this issue.

Hrabowski believes that we are at a crossroads, where COVID-19 and the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others by police officers have further exposed the systemic inequalities in our society. This is especially true in STEM among the ranks of faculty, which have, for a long time, woefully lacked meaningful diversity. In this moment of disease and disparity across racial and gendered lines, Hrabowski argues we have a chance to address systemic inequalities—but only if we attack them with the same systems-level thinking that we would use to remove a cancer from the body.

In his 2013 TED Talk, Hrabowski laid out four pillars to expand diversity across the scientific pipeline—principles that he believes can be replicated in universities across the United States.

These are Hrabowski’s four pillars of success in science, which he also discusses at length in his recent book co-authored with Peter Henderson and Philip Rous, The Empowered University:

  1. High Expectations: Identify students at the undergrad level with good grades, a rigor for coursework, test-taking skills, and a passion for hard work and curiosity.
  2. Building Community: Require students and faculty to work together in groups, learning how to build trust and ask good questions of their peers and counselors, but also learning how to explain concepts to others with clarity.
  3. Great Researchers Produce Great Researchers: Mentorship and commitment to young people in the lab and on the bench give them vital experience with science, which is needed to spark student’s passion.
  4. Evaluation: Program assessment must be built in from the beginning to both inform how the program operates and to demonstrate what works.

To support universities as they work to make these four pillars a reality on college campuses, Hrabowski calls for leadership from the philanthropic community.

Private funders can make decisions quickly and create specific funding opportunities to help establish or maintain these pillars across many science research communities. Here are some concrete steps that Hrabowski suggests both institutions and philanthropic funders can take to combat systemic inequality:

  1. Increase the Pool: Increase the pool of well-prepared students entering graduate school. Students can’t succeed if they have to wait tables for 22 hours a week. Funders need to give young people funding to focus on their studies and work in labs, not restaurants.
  2. Mentors as Champions: Give early-career postdocs support to help them write and submit grants. Mentors and leadership need to foster talent over a sustained period, acting as champions to “knock down doors for students.”  The best mentors will build empathetic, collaborative relationships with their students—relationships that will be crucial to help foster the resilience needed to navigate the challenges and pitfalls that come during the early years of scientific education at the undergraduate and graduate levels. This also leads to self-sufficiency, and the capacity to identify the resources available to overcome obstacles.
  3. Leaders Own Change: To make progress, people with power must take ownership of the issue. Senior scientists with accolades and tenure have real power. Hrabowski remembers from his early career at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign that there was only one woman among the mathematics faculty. Still, she supported him in his development because she related to his experience. Women can often identify and empathize with the lived experience of students of color. When there are faculty of color, they often lack the centralized power to make a change. Leadership must come from the top and must show a strong commitment to change.
  4. Incentives for Faculty Engagement: Underrepresented faculty traditionally get more involved in diversity and inclusion programs. They sometimes also need help and support to be able to give more time and energy. Institutions should provide funding to faculty who volunteer their time on diversity and inclusion issues to ensure they receive adequate funding for their research. Adequate research funding compensates for the time faculty would have needed to write grants which could instead be used working on diversity and inclusion issues. Additional incentives should be created for senior faculty to be involved. Institutions need to help junior faculty so they can focus on research first, then teaching, then other activities after that. Hrabowski states plainly, “Do not sacrifice the research to build diversity programs. They will thank you on the way out without giving you tenure. The research is the most important.”

At the Science Philanthropy Alliance, we are committed to gathering philanthropists to learn about and to share best practices in grant-making with a lens on racial equity, diversity, and inclusion. We agree wholeheartedly that this is a systemic issue that everyone in the science community has the opportunity to solve—and that solving it is not only morally just, but scientifically necessary. Science may take place in a lab, but not in a vacuum; science works best when it fully reflects and includes the communities it serves, and the different perspectives that diverse scientists can bring. We hope you will join us in this effort. It is the foundation of our future.

For more information on diversity, equity and inclusion in science philanthropy, please contact: president@sciphil.org