Whites No Longer Overrepresented in Youngest Scientist Cohorts

Earlier this month, Science Careers took a look at the latest edition of , a biennial report from the National Science Foundation (NSF). We noticed an odd fact: Young Asian men working in 4-year institutions (those who had earned a science or engineering Ph.D. 1 to 2 years before they were surveyed in 2010) were the lowest-earning demographic group, while older Asian men (those who earned their degrees 5 to 14 years before the survey) were the highest-earning demographic group. Why did older Asian men do so well and younger Asian men so poorly?

The data that we would need to explore these questions weren’t in NSF’s report, so we asked NSF statistician Daniel Foley for help. He kindly compiled a table plotting “time since doctoral degree” against how well represented various demographic groups—white scientists, Asian scientists, and underrepresented minority scientists—are at 2-year institutions, at 4-year institutions, in government, and in industry. (Asians are considered a minority population in the United States, but they are not considered by NSF to be underrepresented in the sciences.)

For the cohort [of white scientists] who earned their Ph.D.s between 2006 and 2010, their representation at 4-year institutions is approximately in line with—and not above—their national demographic representation.

The answer to our question about Asian men was not to be found, but the new data did illustrate two other interesting facts, one of which we at Science Careers weren’t aware of previously. (Note that there are some gaps in the data because, Foley says, for some cohorts the numbers were so small that revealing them could present risks to confidentiality.)

At 4-year institutions, white scientists aren’t represented as well among the younger cohorts as they are among the older cohorts. Non-Hispanic white people make up about 63% of the U.S. population, according to 2011 census data, so for the cohort who earned their Ph.D.s between 2006 and 2010, their representation at 4-year institutions is approximately in line with—and not above—their national demographic representation. Interestingly, the decline in the white demographic is driven primarily by white men, whose representation within the youngest three cohorts fell from 43% in the group who earned degrees between 1996 and 2000 to 36% in the 2001 to 2005 group, then drops again to 31% in the 2006 to 2010 group. Over those same times, white women’s representation remained steady near 30%.

White scientists are actually underrepresented among industry scientists with Ph.D.s., in the three youngest cohorts. The decreasing representation of white workers is compensated by an increase in representation by Asians. Notably, among the younger cohorts, Asian men outnumber Asian women by about three-to-one. Why? According to the NSF report, Asian women are more likely than any other demographic group to report leaving the workforce to support family.

These data suggest that Asian men—the majority of whom are temporary residents from China and India, according to statistics from the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education—are playing an increasingly large role in academic research and the industrial workforce. That’s hardly news, but these data make the point very clearly: In the scientific workforce, the number of white scientists—especially white men—is declining, while the number of Asian men is on the rise.

In neither industry nor 4-year institutions has the representation of URMs made much progress—but there is one area where underrepresented minority scientists, especially African-Americans and Hispanics, have made significant inroads: 2-year institutions, where they make up some 22% of the youngest cohort. Representation is essentially split between underrepresented minority men and women.

While these jobs, almost all of them teaching-focused faculty positions, don’t carry the same cachet as faculty jobs at research institutions, it’s encouraging that underrepresented minority scientists are making headway in at least this corner of the workforce.

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