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The Biden administration says addressing climate change and environmental racism are major priorities. In order to address them, they'll need to lean heavily on federal scientists - engineers, mathematicians, epidemiologists and chemists. Right now, that federal science workforce is disproportionately white and male. NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports on efforts to diversify the government's technical ranks.
REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Laura Dodson is a 28-year-old agricultural economist at the USDA and a steward for one of the agency's employee unions. She was pretty sure that this was the right job for her because she watched her dad do it for years.
LAURA DODSON: It's kind of ridiculous and cute, but we both work in the exact same field
HERSHER: As a kid, Dodson thought her dad's job seemed great. Agricultural economists help the government decide how to support farmers across the country. It's important work. In college, Dodson studied economics. Her father encouraged her. Other men did not.
DODSON: I had male mentors when I was in college, and it did not go well. And I was discouraged from being a scientist and discouraged from taking my career
HERSHER: Further, one mentor told her straight-up she was not smart enough to be an economist. She ignored him and got a graduate degree. Women are underrepresented in government STEM jobs, sometimes dramatically. A recent report from the House Science Committee found that, at the federal agency that leads basic climate research, there are more than eight times as many male engineers as female engineers. The racial demographics are even more dismal. Federal scientists are still overwhelmingly white. Black scientists are particularly underrepresented. That's a big problem for an administration that says it wants to correct health disparities and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in ways that address systemic racism.
ANTONIO BAINES: The more folks at the table doing science, hopefully the quicker we'll find cures for the cancer and diseases and make a better environment for all of us.
HERSHER: Antonio Baines is a toxicologist and pharmacologist at North Carolina Central University, a historically Black institution. He has advised thousands of young scientists over the years. But federal government jobs aren't always an obvious choice.
BAINES: I think students don't always know what they can do with their degrees. And the federal government can be a black box.
HERSHER: Baines wants those jobs to be seen as viable options. He's invited the heads of science agencies to guest lecture and arranged for students to shadow federal scientists. Tia Tate is a 30-year-old computational biologist. She flew through undergrad, masters and Ph.D. programs studying health disparities. All of her degrees have been from HBCUs.
TIA TATE: I feel like having graduated from, like, these historically Black colleges and universities really kind of gives me a sense of pride in self - for myself and my people and encouraged me to continue to work for my communities.
HERSHER: But as a Black woman in science, Tate says she also felt unsure sometimes about where she fit.
TATE: So, you know, I felt like an imposter at one point, but...
HERSHER: Like she didn't belong. She knew she was excellent at math and biology, but there was still a nagging fear that she might not be able to compete in academia or government.
TATE: I kind of felt like, OK, can I hold my own to these people that went to these prestigious universities where, you know, the funding was limitless and, you know, they had opportunities that I didn't necessarily - didn't have? And so I had continued to tell myself, you know, I am qualified. I'm not here just because of affirmative action. I hate that term.
HERSHER: Tate also had a mentor in her Ph.D. program, a woman of color who was an excellent scientist. The mentor had done a postdoc in government after she finished her Ph.D. And so when Tate was offered a postdoc position at a federal agency, she took it. She can't discuss her agency, but she says she likes her job so far. And she would love to stay in government if she can continue to work on health disparities.
In recent weeks, the Biden administration has taken steps to attract and retain young scientists like Tate and Dodson. The proposed infrastructure plan explicitly cites the need for a more inclusive STEM workforce. Democrats hope to send more money to minority-serving colleges and universities that are training the next generation of scientists. Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.
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