In late 2015, college students throughout America carried out a long series of protests against the “systemic and structural racism” that they saw on their campuses. They made several demands, the most common of which was to increase the diversity of their college professors.
Kenneth Gibbs Jr., an immunologist and science-policy expert at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, could relate. He saw the same lack of high-level diversity in his own career. And he saw it in reports showing that underrepresented minorities get just 6 percent of grants from the National Institutes of Health, even though they make up 32 percent of the U.S. population.
But when talking about the problem, Gibbs kept hearing the same refrain. Maybe there just weren’t enough good, qualified minority candidates to fill those posts. Maybe the lack of color at the top reflected a lack of talent at the bottom. “Some people just say, ‘Hey there are no minorities out there,’” he says. “And I think, ‘There are 100 in my Facebook.’”
So, Gibbs gathered figures on the numbers of Ph.D. graduates and assistant professors in the science departments of medical schools throughout the country, from 1980 to 2014. The data were stark. During that time, the number of newly minted Ph.D. holders from underrepresented groups grew by nine times, but the number of assistant professors from those groups grew by just 2.6 times. No such gulf existed for well-represented groups like whites and Asians; there, the Ph.D. graduate pool grew by 2.2 times while the assistant professor pool rose proportionally, by 1.7 times.