I’m in the process of applying to research programs for this summer, and I’ve finished eight out of twelve applications. Most are research experience for undergraduates (REUs) sponsored by the National Science Foundation, and others are programs unique to a school that have special funds to support undergraduates. For succinctness, I’ll use REUs to refer to any research program designed for undergraduates, even if it’s not NSF-sponsored.

Because of all these applications, I’ve been doing a prodigious amount of reading and am seeing some common quotes. Here are some from two of the sites I’m applying to:

The MIT Summer Research Program is an institutional effort to help facilitate the involvement of talented students in research aspects of the fields of engineering and science, in particular those from disadvantaged backgrounds such as under-represented minorities, or first-generation college students. [From MIT]

Although student participants will be selected based on merit after a nationwide recruitment from a broad range of colleges and universities, a fifth objective of the project is to broaden the participation of underrepresented groups including minorities, women, and students with disabilities. [From UNC Greensboro]

While I support diversifying the workforce, I can’t help but wonder: how effective are these? This is a hard question to answer, not in the least because the question itself is equivocal. I’m going to view it and base my answer on how many REU graduates end up as professors in* first-rate research institutions*. It’s not a perfect measure of judgement, since many professors likely did not participate in any REUs as undergraduates, but it’s one possible interpretation.

Why do I hold this perspective? If the National Science Foundation and other prominent institutions, such as MIT, are truly committed to fostering a diverse workforce, then shouldn’t that mean there is diversity at the top of the hierarchy (i.e. professors at top schools)?

Unfortunately, I don’t think REUs have had as significant an impact on diversity as desired … yet. Obviously the future may prove me wrong, but I’m not optimistic. I did a quick search on professorship patterns in the past few years. Check out this MIT article, for instance. In 2007, not that long ago, 25 MIT professors were promoted, and exactly one was a woman.

Ouch.

Hey, science isn’t alone; look at politics. Even though the 113th Congress has been among the most diverse ever, the great majority of its members – 67% – are white males, and in Obama’s cabinet, whose positions are arguably more prestigious than being members of Congress, white males dominate (at least 69% to date).

One way that I think REUs could ease (or perhaps confirm) my concerns would be to publish a list of their participants and, most importantly, their current occupation. The only REU that I know of that does this really well is at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. Looking here, their program director has produced a meticulous history of past participants and listed where they are now. I believe the NSF should encourage sites to have lists like these, so that there’s a greater sense of how successful these places are at supporting diversity. And we can’t just look at where students go to graduate school; we have to look at how they perform after graduate school.