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Energy Department awards $17.3 million in research funding, targets students of color

The investments, announced at Howard University, reflect increased focus on students of color

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm speaks during a roundtable discussion at Howard University in Washington on Monday. (Stefani Reynolds/Pool/AP)
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The Energy Department will direct $17.3 million to support research and internship opportunities, with a focus on increasing the number of students of color in science, technology, engineering and math fields, Secretary Jennifer Granholm said at Howard University on Monday.

More than $5 million will fund research projects at 11 universities, including Howard and Florida A&M — both historically Black schools — and the University of Texas at El Paso, where the majority of students are Hispanic.

“The data makes it clear that we need diversity in science, technology, engineering and math,” Granholm said at a roundtable discussion on racial disparities in STEM fields. “We really want to see a diverse pipeline of our future workforce and our problem-solvers and scientists.”

Howard will receive nearly $400,000 from the federal agency to research ways to use electromagnetic energy to convert fossil fuels into low-cost hydrogen, a development that could be instrumental in combating climate change, said Howard professor Su Yan, who is leading the project.

Granholm acknowledged the decades-long underinvestment at historically Black colleges and universities, which have been denied the level of federal funding provided to predominantly White institutions to build research facilities and conduct projects.

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The disparities remain. Federal science and engineering support to HBCUs has fallen by 17 percent since 2016 but has increased by 2 percent to academic institutions overall, according to the National Science Foundation.

The gaps stem from several factors, including heavy faculty workloads, implicit bias and a lack of resources, said Kim Lewis, Howard’s associate dean for research, graduate programs and natural sciences.

“The inequity in the federal research funding is due to an inequity in the research infrastructure,” Lewis said. “So for example, not having state-of-the-art research laboratories could prevent or minimize faculty members from getting or obtaining preliminary data to demonstrate a proof of concept that’s needed to compete for these research funds.”

Granholm, while touting President Biden’s American Jobs Plan, said the $2 trillion proposal to address dated infrastructure and climate change is “a step toward correcting some of that.”

“We’re missing out on, obviously, untapped talent, but it also leaves us with this narrower innovation and solution path,” Granholm said about research disparities. “We see it in facial recognition software all the time, right now even, where Black people are 100 times more likely to be misidentified than White people, which of course has huge ramifications in all sorts of realms but particularly … in criminal justice and people being misidentified.”

What’s in Biden’s $2 trillion jobs and infrastructure plan?

Biden’s proposal earmarks $40 billion to modernize laboratories throughout the country, a measure designed to increase research and development. Half of those dollars would be directed to historically Black schools and minority-serving institutions and help create a new national lab focused on climate change and affiliated with an HBCU, according to the White House.

The proposal would be paid for, in part, by raising the corporate tax rate and global minimum tax. Republicans and some business groups have opposed the plan and its required tax increase, arguing they will damage U.S. investment and global competitiveness.

For universities such as Howard, the proposal would provide the resources students need, professors said.

“Students need to have access to the latest and greatest of technologies so they can have hands-on training so that when they go into these corporations they are ready to go from day one,” said Quinton Williams, chair of Howard’s physics and astronomy department.

The announcements made at Howard follow several other significant STEM investments in the university. A $10 million gift from the Karsh Family Foundation helped fund STEM scholarships last year. Bloomberg Philanthropies donated $32.8 million in September to support the school’s medical program.