The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted just how critical data is to our everyday lives—and not just in health and life sciences. Data science is critical in practically every sector of the U.S. economy. Data promotes evidence-based decision-making, helps improve efficiency, and provides better security.
Companies have expanded their use of data, and data democratization has become more prevalent across the business spectrum. Yet the availability of data analysts and engineers has not kept pace with this surging need. The U.S. education system has lagged in preparing students for this data-filled world, as it relies on the same courses of study that have existed for decades.
The pandemic has exposed another key urgency: a data science workforce that reflects the racial and ethnic makeup of our country. Why? Because this workforce determines what diseases or genes to study, chooses who participates or is represented, and informs health decisions that affect hundreds of millions of Americans. Therefore, it must reflect all of the groups of peoples that make up America as well as their needs and experiences.
Here are two ways to create more equitable pathways to data science careers:
1. Provide paid internship opportunities. Unpaid internships create an equity gap as they preference those who can afford to work without compensation, excluding many people, including those from historically marginalized communities. The Massachusetts Life Science Center (MLSC) offers the Data Science Internship Program, the largest paid internship program of its kind in the country. MLSC is particularly interested in increasing access to internships in the data science field for individuals identifying as women, Black, Indigenous, and/or Latinx.
2. Create opportunities from community colleges to four-year institutions. Community colleges are vital to our nation’s STEM workforce and can provide a critical entry-point to data science. They enroll more than 40% of all university students, including 56% of Native American college students, 53% of Hispanic college students, and 43% of Black college students. But many data science jobs require higher-level degrees, and therefore pathways and supports are needed to help community college students move on to higher-degree data science programs.
A number of models and funding opportunities exist to do just that, including programs from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense as well as a biotechnology model that EDC and partners are building on. EDC also supports community colleges and technical education centers in the design and development of STEM programming to provide students with a clear pathway to in-demand careers.
Our country can and must build a truly representative data science workforce that captures the full intellectual talent of our youth. If your institution is interested in learning more about opportunities for partnership, please contact us.
Rebecca Lewis, managing project director, is a member of the Massachusetts Data Science Workforce Challenge Initiative leadership team. She also leads a program to bring biotechnology education to secondary schools around the world and is the principal investigator of EDC’s Women Veterans in STEM project.