Congress is aiming to reshape America’s workforce through new legislation that would direct more than $1 billion toward increasing diversity of the scientists, researchers and technologists who drive the innovation economy.
The measure includes $900 million for grants and partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities, $164 million to study barriers for people of color in the field and $17.5 million to combat sexual harassment. They’re part of a expansive package of bills known as the America Competes Act, which lawmakers hope will ensure the United States continues to lead the global economy.
“We cannot compete internationally without having the available talent,” House Science Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, told CNBC. “We’ve got to make sure we build in the mechanism … to get that talent.”
Mirimus, Inc. lab scientists work to validate rapid IgM/IgG antibody tests of COVID-19 samples from recovered patients on April 10, 2020 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
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The House passed the package Friday. It includes signature items such as funding for the domestic semiconductor industry and efforts to tackle supply chain shortages. Speaker Nancy Pelosi had enough support to pass the legislation despite opposition from House Republicans who want to take a tougher stance against China.
A version of the bill passed the Senate last summer with strong bipartisan support. The two chambers will have to negotiate a compromise version of the legislation. The White House has made getting the bill to the president’s desk one of the administration’s top priorities as its social spending plan and other legislative initiatives languish.
“Our red line is doing nothing or taking too long,” Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo told reporters Friday. She added: “My message to everyone is to find common ground, quickly. This should take weeks not months.”
A report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine estimated the United States will need 1 million more people employed in those sectors over the next decade than it is currently on track to produce. The group said the country will not reach that goal without substantially increasing diversity in the labor force.
“A clear takeaway from the projected demographic profile of the nation is that the educational outcomes and STEM readiness of students of color will have direct implications on America’s economic growth, national security, and global prosperity,” the report said.
The bill would also authorize new investments for colleges and universities that primarily serve students of color through research funding and enhanced engagement. About 18% of Black college graduates in science and technology come from historically Black colleges and universities, according to the National Science Foundation.
“We’ve got to build the opportunity,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to invest in building talent from this level, which means if they’re at HBCUs, then we’ve got to invest in HBCUs.”
At Spelman College in Atlanta, more Black women have graduated with doctoral degrees than at any other school in the country. The historically Black college is planning to build a new innovation lab over the next two years thanks to a $10 million gift from the foundation named after Arthur Blank, co-founder of Home Depot.
The school’s president, Mary Schmidt Campbell, told CNBC that Washington also plays an important role by setting the national agenda. She said the new legislation could “democratize” innovation and ultimately benefit businesses’ bottom line.
“There’s of course the altruistic mission of making sure that everybody is included,” Campbell said. “But there is a self-interested reason why companies should be interested in diversity: It’s because it makes them better companies.”
Correction: This story was updated to correct the spelling of the Spelman College president’s name.