Department of Energy requires plans to promote diversity from grant applicants

United States’s largest supporter of the physical sciences challenges community to develop ideas to broaden participation in research

Asmeret Berhe
Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, this week announced a new policy asking grant applicants to address their plans for diversity and inclusion. Here she tours the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in July.Tom Nicol/Fermilab

Researchers seeking funding from the United States’s single biggest funder of the physical sciences will now have to think about how they can structure their own efforts to promote greater participation by researchers and students of color and from other underrepresented groups.

This week, the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, which has an annual budget of $7.5 billion, announced on its website that researchers responding to funding opportunities, including those at the office’s 10 national laboratories, must include a Promoting Inclusive and Equitable Research (PIER) Plan in their application. It “should describe the activities and strategies of the applicant to promote equity and inclusion as an intrinsic element to advancing scientific excellence in the research project.” The plan cannot merely restate university or institutional policy and will be evaluated as part of the application’s merit review.

“It’s timely and it’s important for them to make this change,” says Nadya Mason, a condensed matter physicist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who has served as chair of the American Physical Society’s Committee on Minorities in Physics. “Prior to this, there’s a feeling that DOE just didn’t care about nonresearch broader impacts.” However, Apriel Hodari, a physicist and principal investigator with Eureka Scientific who studies the culture of science, technology, engineering, and math fields, says the success of the initiative depends on researchers approaching their diversity efforts with the same sort of professionalism they apply to their science. “If we’re not going to be that level of serious, then we’re just bullshitting.”

The new requirement is just one part of a broader effort by the Office of Science under President Joe Biden’s administration to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion both within the organization and within the communities it serves. For example, the office’s Reaching a New Energy Sciences Workforce program aims to fund work at institutions historically underrepresented in its research portfolio, such as minority-serving institutions. With the new requirements for grants, the Office of Science is now challenging DOE-funded researchers to make their own contributions to the effort, Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, director of the Office of Science, explains in a statement on the agency’s website.

“It’s time that we do more to encourage our research communities to consider what contributions they can make to broadening participation in science and ensuring that their own scientific efforts and environments are equitable and inclusive,” says Berhe, who grew up in Eritrea and is the first person of color to direct the Office of Science. “Everyone has a role to play.”

Historically, the fields DOE supports are among the least diverse in science. For example, in the United States between 1999 and 2020, Black people earned just 0.5% of Ph.D.s in physics. The new requirement puts DOE more in line with the National Science Foundation, which has long required grant applicants to provide a statement of the broader impacts their research will have, notes Mason, who has funding from both agencies.

A major challenge will be keeping researchers from simply treating the requirement as another box to tick or fobbing the work off on minority scientists, Hodari says. “That’s often people’s first ask,” she says, “to find anyone they think can help them and ask, ‘Do this for us.’” Hodari, who is Black, says she experienced such treatment when she was a postdoc. Much has been written about what actually succeeds in promoting diversity, she says, but it’s the researcher’s responsibility to read the material and take it seriously. “You just got to do your homework,” she says. “I don’t expect someone in middle school to walk into a quantum field theory class and understand tensor math, right?”

Another potential pitfall is that researchers will interpret the requirement to mean they have to come up with elaborate plans, when something simpler may be more effective, Mason says. If, say, 5% of a grant goes to diversity issues, then “I’d rather see that 5% go to a really top-notch mentoring and educational experience for one or two students a year, than to a very broad program that no one’s really putting enough resources or attention or effort into.” Mason says she hopes DOE will offer education as to what sorts of efforts work the best. However, the DOE website says that, as every project is different, it won’t provide examples of good PIER plans.

Still, Mason says, she’s encouraged by the initiative. “I’m an optimist,” she says. “I believe that the vast majority of physicists—even the vast majority of white male physicists—want a more diverse and representative community.” DOE is now going to require them to think about the issue.

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