“Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”
So goes one of the most storied sonnets of our American experiment. The timeless echoes of Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” still reverberate almost 140 years after it was first penned: in fact, these two lines in particular have become the personification of American excellence.
America has defined itself as a shining city on a hill calling out to anyone and everyone willing to come and better their lot in life, an experiment in diversity, equity, and inclusion that stands in stark contrast to the homogeneity of much of the rest of the world. That is what Lazarus called us to do: she saw Congress limiting immigration through the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and she saw European leaders dividing Africa into colonies in 1884, and she used her voice to shatter the cornerstones of unfettered capitalism perpetuated by the colonial patriarchy of the day.
We need to heed Lazarus’s words, now more than ever—particularly if we are going to continue to be that shining city and lead as a nation.
The sad truth is that when it comes to the industries of science, engineering, technology, and math (STEM), we have fallen short of what has made our national experiment so successful in the past. In 2018, US students ranked eighteenth in science and thirty-seventh in mathematics in international testing metrics. Our rankings have worsened over time, and we are starting to see the ramifications of that play out now in geopolitics and economic competition.
In 2000, US universities awarded twice as many doctorates in STEM fields (18,289) as Chinese universities (9,038). In 2007, that order flipped and China began outpacing US universities. By 2010, Chinese universities were graduating 34,801 STEM doctorates compared to 26,076 by American universities. This shift has led America to fall behind in supercomputing, hypersonics, planetary defense, astrophysics, quantum computing, naval warfare, space warfare, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, robotics, resilient infrastructure . . . and the list goes on.
We have fallen behind because we have allowed the legacy of our nation’s systemic inequalities to lead us astray. Diversity has long been the cornerstone of our unique progress and place in the world—science is a team sport, much as we like to romanticize the idea of a lone great mind toiling away the hours until they achieve their “eureka” moment. And diversity within those teams is key to maximizing success: as Professor Scott Pages lays out in his book The Difference, the solutions to complex problems require complex, diverse perspectives. In fact, he found that when groups of intelligent individuals are problem-solving complex tasks, the diversity of the individual matters more than their individual ability. Diversity, he concluded, is not distinct from enhancing success but rather integral to achieving it.
But even as as our demographics have shifted, we have not harkened to the cry of our colossus. Instead, we have allowed bias and racism to keep us in a state of mediocrity by not inspiring future generations of diverse students to build upon the pedestal of liberty.
According to the National Science Foundation, the nation’s STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) workforce is 89 percent white and 72 percent male, while the overall workforce is 78 percent white and 53 percent male. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) students are underrepresented both in depictions of STEAM-related fields and in STEAM majors, due in part to a lack of access to people, critical tools, and educational opportunities in minority communities.
This underrepresentation has in turn led to a lack of capacity within the scientific community. On a systemic level, these perpetuated inequalities necessarily limit our capacity to solve problems. Without competency in these fields, we will continue to face a workforce gap—and the lack of competency will further exacerbate the science literacy crisis.
In my latest book, LatinX Business Success (at the time of writing, the number one new release on Amazon in the economics, business, and entrepreneurship genres), Frank Carbajal and I discuss how the Latinx community has been leading the way in ingenuity and innovation across industries. We highlight role models that future generations of Latinx leaders can use as Ebenezers to guide them along their journeys.
This is also why my company Ad Astra Media was created. We are seeking to inspire diverse leaders from all walks of life to study and enter the STEAM fields. We create STEAM-based content with diverse characters to capture the imaginations of diverse kids and keep them engaged all the way from pre-K to the first stages of their careers (data show us that we are losing BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and female students around middle school).
Most children born in America today are non-white, and half of all children born are female. If we continue to perpetuate the underrepresentation of minorities and women in the American scientific enterprise, the United States will be increasingly incapable of mustering a competent scientific workforce.
We must trade mediocrity for meritocracy. Diversity is our differentiator: we must listen to the silent cry of Emma Lazarus’s sonnet and light the lamp for everyone—including and particularly those from diverse social backgrounds—so that the nation’s “golden doors” will truly be lit for all.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Hispanic Executive or Guerrero Media.
José Morey, MD is the CEO and founder of Ad Astra Media LLC, an Eisenhower Fellow, and the cofounder of Ever Medical Technologies. He is a health and technology keynote speaker, author, and consultant for NASA, Forbes, MIT, the United Nations World Food Program, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. He is considered the world’s first intergalactic doctor and is often featured on Forbes, Univision, CNBC, and NASA360. He named Puerto Rico as the future “Silicon Island.” His recent essay, “The Future Shock of Medicine: How AI will Transform Disease, Death, and Doctors,” was recently reviewed by the Wall Street Journal and his book Latinx Business Success was published by Wiley in November 2021.