Federal Interagency Policy Group Targets Bias to Increase Diversity in STEM

On November 30, the Interagency Policy Group (IPG) established by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) released a report, Reducing the Impact of Bias in the STEM Workforce: Strengthening Excellence and Innovation and a companion digest. The report includes recommendations of actions and strategies the federal government can take to increase diversity in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce “by mitigating the impact of implicit, institutional, or explicit bias that may exist in both the Federal Government and in federally funded institutions of higher education.” Created in October 2015, the IPG was co-chaired by OSTP Assistant Director for Broadening Participation Wanda Ward and OPM Deputy Director for Strategic Initiatives, Training, and Compliance Bruce Stewart

On December 12, Jo Handelsman, OSTP; Suzanne Iaconon, National Science Foundation (NSF); Brenda Manuel, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); Anna Han, National Institutes of Health (NIH); and Susan Fiske, Princeton University, discussed the report at the American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS) Colloquium on Reducing Implicit Bias. Celeste Rohlfing, AAAS, moderated the event.

Handelsman reiterated President Obama’s message that “diversity is America’s strength” and the need to “take advantage of our greatest resource in science.” She cited the robust research revealing that diverse groups produce “more feasible and effective solutions to problems; better, more defensible decisions; and more innovation in teams.” On the other hand, there is equally rigorous research that shows “that virtually all people carry unconscious biases” and that these biases influence our attitudes and behaviors around hiring, mentoring, and promotion. Consequently, “these behaviors affect inclusion of women and minorities in the STEM workforce,” she explained.

To this end, an IPG Best Practices Subgroup identified best practices and promising practices that 14 agencies are using to raise the awareness about bias and minimize its impact. Handelsman shared that the best practices include analyses of mandated workforce data sets, implicit bias training, conflict resolution, and worker flexibility. The promising practices include the use of diversity change agents, diversity toolkits, technical qualifications boards, and grant proposal review experiments. She also mentioned emerging practices, which include unconscious bias training targeted at search committees, bias training for the entire workforce, hiring and promotions safeguard pilots, and new inclusive workforce tools.

The IPG report makes three key recommendations and suggests steps to implement them:

Recommendation 1. Each Federal agency should exercise leadership at all levels, including senior officials, STEM-program and administrative managers, human-capital officials, and diversity and inclusion officials (or their equivalent), to reduce the impact of bias in their internal operations.

Recommendation 2. Each Federal agency should incorporate bias-mitigation strategies into its proposal-review process and offer technical assistance to grantee institutions to implement bias-mitigation strategies.

Recommendation 3. OSTP, OPM, and the Department of Justice (DOJ), as appropriate, should exercise leadership to reduce the impact of bias in the Federal STEM workforce and Federally funded institutions of higher education.

The Interagency Policy Group also made recommendations designed to guide the implementation of the recommendations in the report. These include the formation of an interagency body “acting as community of practice and drawn from the National Science and Technology Committee (NSTC) and OPM.” This group would coordinate and review government-wide implementation, scaling, gap identification, tool development, and living inventory development; public engagement campaign, institutionalization plans such as a “one-page plan of action to implement and institutionalize policies and practices,” and accountability measures that can be used to evaluate progress.

Prior to release of the report, on November 28, U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith and OSTP Senior Policy Advisor Laura Weidman Powers authored a White House blog post, Raising the Floor: Sharing What Works in Workplace Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, which compiles “insights and tips into an Action Grid designed to be a resource for those striving to create more diverse, equitable, and inclusive science and technology teams and workforces.”

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