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Technology keeps advancing exponentially, making this an inspiring and high-stakes era. The STEM disciplines and social sciences significantly influence the trajectory of American society and the global community in ways that other sectors and fields of exploration cannot match.  

Today, people of color are underrepresented in all aspects of STEM, including academia, business, research, technology and more. 

This matters, and not merely because of basic questions of equity, fairness and opportunity. Diversity has practical, real-life implications for how our society functions, and it impacts our long-term sustainability. 

Consider the burgeoning field of artificial intelligence (AI), whose influence in our lives will exceed what many of us can even imagine. Harnessing AI has countless applications, from helping to map diseases to improving adaptive online learning platforms to supporting the work of law enforcement officers.  

But without experts and policymakers at the table with diverse lived experiences, the use of those technologies is more likely to reinforce the unconscious biases already rampant in society than to address them.  

For example, the galvanizing images of the appalling police killing of George Floyd triggered a long-overdue national focus on the intersection of law enforcement, race and justice. AI can absolutely help identify and find suspects more quickly and accurately, but when it is misused and irresponsibly employed, based on already biased data, it does more harm than good. As we reimagine policing, we must create better data systems and technology to inform our new policies.  

While our institutions draw strength from our objectivity, we also have a collective responsibility to ensure that our advances lead to a safer, more just society. It begins with a more representative bench of social engineers.

Sources of data about the depths of America’s systemic racism, and the lack of progress in addressing it, have multiplied, giving everyone a clearer sense of what’s really happening in our world.  

Now the question is: How do we use more compelling evidence to spur action toward needed solutions?  

AI can and should be a force for furthering equity and inclusion — but it needs to be employed thoughtfully and responsibly to avoid putting countless human lives in danger.  

Recognizing this risk, Howard University and Mathematica are among the institutions working to bring more people of color into the STEM fields. Together, we sponsored this year’s Summer Institute in Computational Social Science at Howard University, a historically Black research university in Washington, D.C. 

Related: Even as colleges pledge to improve, share of engineering and math graduates who are Black declines 

The Summer Institute is a global program that focuses on the critical intersection of data science and social science and helps train the next generation of top scientists, engineers, mathematicians and technology innovators. 

A key theme of this year’s virtually held Summer Institute, open to graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and junior faculty from anywhere in the world, was making sure we’re training a new generation of computational social scientists to use emerging technologies and tools to combat systemic racism instead of reinforcing it; to use AI to fight inequity instead of perpetuating it.  

It’s an exciting time for this pursuit. Whereas we once were forced to limit the scope of policy and program evaluations to one or two key research questions, we now can harness new data sources and technology to broaden the quest.  

This moves us closer to more fully answering the key questions of policy evaluation: Does it work? Is it worth it? How do we make it more effective? 

Answering these questions will require problem-solvers as adept at traditional social science methods as they are at writing machine-learning algorithms and using other data science techniques.  

We need social scientists who appreciate the value of newly democratized datasets and think creatively about how they can be applied in new ways to solve persistent problems.  

We need data scientists who understand that even the most valuable data carry real-world limitations and implications, and that one’s perspective can just as easily be the key to unlocking innovative solutions as one’s analysis. 

And most importantly, we need those same people to bring their diverse backgrounds, their lived experiences and their passion to better inform evidence and analysis for the future.  

Innovation is not inherently good. As we often discuss with our colleagues and students, remaining objective in the face of injustice does not mean remaining silent. While our institutions draw strength from our objectivity, we also have a collective responsibility to ensure that our advances lead to a safer, more just society.  

It begins with a more representative bench of social engineers.  

Wayne A. I. Frederick is the president of Howard University and a professor of surgery at Howard University College of Medicine. 

Paul Decker is the president and CEO of Mathematica, an independent policy research and analytics firm.  

This story about equity and STEM was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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