PHOTO: Tom Robertson/SHUTTERSTOCK

We’ve written before about the Packard Foundation’s Fellows for Science and Engineering, a program that supports promising early-career academic researchers with a hefty $875,000 over five years. Since 1988, the largely unrestricted funding has helped spur the careers and research of numerous trailblazers in science—including many who have gone on to receive other top recognitions, including Nobel Prizes, the Fields Medal and the Kavli Prize, to name a few.

Selected universities nominated 100 candidates from their STEM faculties for the high-profile Packard fellowship this year. The foundation chose 20 fellows, working in such areas as physics, ecology and evolutionary biology, biochemistry, physics and astronomy, chemistry, engineering and computer science, and others.

New fellow Ana Asenjo-Garcia, of Columbia University, for example, is researching the application of quantum physics with an aim to develop applications for information science. Evolutionary biologist and ecologist Roxanne Beltran, at UC Santa Cruz, is using migratory marine mammals as smart sensors to collect important data about ocean health. Marc Miskin, a materials science engineer at the University of Pennsylvania, builds microscopic robots that can emulate biology at the nanotechnology level. Read more here about the 2021 Packard Fellows cohort and their research.

Fellows can use the Packard funding for pretty much any research need, explained Xiao-Wei Wang, head of Packard Fellowships. But a key feature of the fellowship is the flexibility to use the money for indirect expenses, such as childcare. With most major research grants restricted to specific studies, the flexibility of the Packard money can really make a difference to a young scientist juggling all the costs and demands that arise while building an academic research career, not to mention a family.

While Packard’s focus is selecting the researchers they hope will drive science and technology within and beyond their fields of study, it’s worth noting that this year’s cohort of fellows may reveal a positive trend in the problem of underrepresentation of women in several academic fields—a problem that has long persisted in STEM scholarship and employment.

“I would say that this year we did see more diversity put forth by the universities who participated in the program,” said Wang. “And I was very pleased there’s a record number of women fellows that have been awarded for 2021.” Of the 20 fellows, 10 are women.

If it is a sign of growing numbers of women in STEM—or of greater recognition of their accomplishments—it’s welcome and long-overdue news. For decades now, studies have underscored the general whiteness and maleness of faculty in STEM departments. Universities claim to be working actively to boost diversity, but the numbers haven’t shown too much progress over the years. In the decade from 2008 to 2018, the number of women receiving STEM degrees increased by 63% but by the end of that decade, still accounted for only 32% of STEM degrees, according to USAFacts.org. In the broader workforce, women make up only about 27% of STEM workers, despite being nearly half the workforce, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics.

Greater representation of women in prominent philanthropic programs could help break up whatever logjams have been preventing university departments from diversifying their faculties. In addition to sending a message to academic leaders, it can put more women on track for leadership positions themselves, and allow young and aspiring researchers to see people like themselves in high-profile research roles.

Such fellowships are often skewed, reflecting the fields they support. But several philanthropies have made increasing diversity in STEM fields a priority. The Heising-Simons Foundation, for example, has an initiative within its science program to advance women in physics and astronomy. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Bloomberg Philanthropies have both made substantial gifts in recent years in support of racial diversity in science fields.

This year also saw a change within leadership at the Packard fellow program itself. Richard Alley—a geologist at Pennsylvania State University and a Packard Fellow from the class of 1991—took over as chair of the Packard Fellowships Advisory Panel. The previous chair, Nobel laureate Frances Arnold, left to join the Biden administration’s President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Alley says he’s not surprised to see strong representation of women in this year’s cohort of fellows, and that diversity within the research ranks only improves the quality of science coming out of the laboratories. “It’s about inclusion, but it’s also about improving the product, because more diverse views give you a better product,” Alley said. “You want to approach problems in more ways, and so by diversifying the pool of researchers, we are not just doing the right thing, we are also doing something that works better.”

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