black_scientist.jpg(AP) — With black unemployment reaching historic levels, banks laying off tens of thousands and law school graduates waiting tables, why aren't more African Americans looking toward science, technology, engineering and math — the still-hiring careers known as STEM?

The answer turns out to be a complex equation of self-doubt, stereotypes, discouragement and economics — and sometimes just wrong perceptions of what math and science are all about.

The percentage of African Americans earning STEM degrees has fallen during the last decade. It may seem far-fetched for an undereducated black population to aspire to become chemists or computer scientists but the door is wide open, colleges say, and the shortfall has created opportunities for those who choose this path.

STEM barriers are not unique to black people. The United States does not produce as high a proportion of white engineers, scientists and mathematicians as it used to. Women and Latinos also lag behind white men.

Yet the situation is most acute for African Americans.

Black people are 12 percent of the U.S. population and 11 percent of all students beyond high school. In 2009, they received just seven percent of all STEM bachelor's degrees, four percent of master's degrees, and two percent of PhDs, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

From community college through PhD level, the percentage of STEM degrees received by blacks in 2009 was 7.5 percent, down from 8.1 percent in 2001.

The numbers are striking in certain fields. In 2009, African Americans received one percent of degrees in science technologies and four percent of degrees in math and statistics. Out of 5,048 PhDs awarded in the physical sciences, such as chemistry and physics, 89 went to African Americans — less than two percent.

Several factors are cited by scientists, educators and students. One is a self-defeating perception that STEM is too hard. Also mentioned are a lack of role models and mentors, pressure to earn money quickly and discouraging academic environments.

The impact reaches beyond the black community as America struggles to produce enough scientists to prosper in a world ruled by technology.

“White men make up less than 50 percent of the U.S. population. We're drawing [future scientists] from less than 50 percent of the talent we have available,” says Mae Jemison, the first black woman astronaut, who has a medical degree and a bachelor's in chemical engineering.

“The more people you have in STEM,” Jemison says, “the more innovations you'll get.”

Money is another factor in the STEM disparity. It takes many years after college to get the advanced degrees needed to become leaders in math and science fields — university professors, directors of research labs, heads of engineering departments — and some black students can't afford to wait that long.

At each stage of science education, many black students feel pressure to stop studying and start earning real money. Yet it's hard to advance far in science without at least a master's, if not a doctorate.

In the world of atoms and numbers, does the color of the person who studies them really matter?

Many of America's technology giants say, yes. Merck has funded tens of millions of dollars in United Negro College Fund scholarships. Bayer has a special focus on recruiting and promoting minorities. Technology giants such as Boeing, General Electric and Xerox support organizations dedicated to raising black STEM participation.

Their motivation is simple math. If bright and capable students' talents go undeveloped, “this represents a loss for both the individual and society,” the National Science Board said in a 2010 report.

The report said that after the Soviet Union beat America into space with Sputnik, the U.S. was inspired to educate a new generation of innovators. This national urgency faded by the 1970s, the report said, and was replaced by complacency.

Some 16 percent of all U.S. undergraduates major in natural science or engineering, compared with 25 percent in Europe, 38 percent in South Korea and 47 percent in China, the report said.

To reverse this decline, the report said America must “cast a wide net to identify all types of talents and to nurture potential in all demographics of students.”


Mae Jemison:

Meyerhoff Scholars Program:

National Science Board report:

National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers: