Last year’s hit film, “Hidden Figures,” introduced millions of Americans to Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan – three brilliant African-American women who overcame obstacles to work as mathematicians and engineers at NASA in the 1960s. Their contributions were essential to launching astronaut John Glenn safely into orbit and ultimately securing America’s success in the space race.
The film received rave reviews from critics and grossed more than $200 million. But have we learned its lessons? Both rhetoric and actions of recent months would suggest otherwise. Just a couple of weeks ago, Congressman Steve King of Iowa proclaimed that the United States “can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” referring to immigrants seeking to come to our shores.
Throughout our history – and even today – we’ve had hidden figures among us who possess the capacity and potential to positively impact society. Only they often never get a chance to do so.
One example: Despite progress made in the past half-century, African-Americans are still woefully underrepresented in STEM fields. Why? Earnestine Easter, a program director with the National Science Foundation who has studied the issue, cites several reasons. Blacks are more likely to come from poor backgrounds and attend inadequate schools. White teachers often misinterpret black students’ responses and behavior or overlook their abilities. Some peers label their academic diligence as “acting white.” Role models are scarce.
But here’s what’s most troubling: We’ve identified several highly effective solutions to these obstacles, but our nation has lacked the will to implement them in a consistent and comprehensive way.
For students who enter college without some of the advantages of their peers, specialized programs can engage and support them in their pursuit of STEM degrees. Here at Georgia Institute of Technology, we’ve implemented a portfolio of initiatives to recruit, educate and empower generations of African-American engineers, and we’ve seen the results of those efforts. Over the last decade, Georgia Tech has graduated more black engineers than any other university in the nation.
There is no shortage of similar strategies and tactics available for K-12 schools and two- and four-year colleges. We have a clear of idea of what works and what’s needed. Yet there is a “one-off” mindset in implementing such programs, rather than making them a pervasive national priority.
The extremism of a travel ban is another way of closing the U.S. off from ingenuity. Already, 2017 has brought waves of restrictions purported to protect us, but their inflexibility potentially deprives the U.S. of the talent and mind power of scientists and engineers from around the world.
An example is Samira Asgari, an Iranian national who recently completed her Ph.D. at a university in Switzerland. Asgari was headed to a lab at Harvard Medical School to conduct research on the genetics of tuberculosis — work that could lead to live-saving treatments. The travel ban took effect while Asgari was en route from Geneva to Boston, barring her from entering the U.S.
Or consider Rania Abdelhameed Mokhtar. This Sudanese electrical engineer was scheduled to attend the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), where she was to receive an award for her research. Despite the fact that the travel ban had already been overturned, Mokhtar opted not to attend, fearing new restrictions.
And let’s not forget some of our nation’s youngest scientists. The National Foundation for American Policy reports that in last year’s Intel Science Talent Search for U.S. high school students — sometimes referred to as the Junior Nobel Prize — 83 percent of finalists were the children of immigrants. We need these young innovators and inventors, just as we needed Johnson, Jackson, Vaughan and other “hidden figures” whose accomplishments were lost to history.
We already know the great engineering challenges of the 21st century: updated urban infrastructure, sustainable energy, next-generation medicines and artificial intelligence, to name just a few. What we don’t know is who, exactly, can solve them.
This is why we must widen the talent pipeline by taking steps to increase diversity at every stage. Various interventions and enrichment programs have been shown to be effective. What we need is a coordinated and comprehensive plan to implement them. If there were such a plan, combined with the necessary resources and national will to execute it, underrepresentation would be a thing of the past.
The challenges and opportunities of the 21st century are too great to risk narrowing the talent pipeline now. Let’s make sure the great engineers, innovators and problem-solvers of the next generation can succeed. Not because they need us, but because we need them.