‘Great news.’ Survey will test counting LGBTQ Ph.D. recipients

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Each year, thousands of newly minted U.S. Ph.D. recipients complete the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED), providing information about their race, gender, disability status, educational background, postgraduate plans, and more. The long-running census is critical for understanding which groups are underrepresented in the U.S. science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) community. But it has a blind spot, many argue: It can’t say anything about how many Ph.D. recipients are LGBTQ. Starting in July, however, a pilot test will begin to address that issue by introducing new questions about sexual orientation and gender identity.

It's “great news,” says Tom Waidzunas, an associate professor of sociology at Temple University who has studied the experiences of LGBTQ people in STEM. “It’s important that we collect data on LGBTQ STEM professionals because it’s pretty well established that there are patterns of discrimination against LGBTQ people in workplaces.”

The National Science Foundation (NSF), which runs the SED, won’t release data from its pilot test. But it will use the responses to determine “the most appropriate set of questions” to ask in subsequent surveys, according to the plan the agency submitted this week to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. “If the … test results demonstrate that we can collect this information accurately while maintaining privacy, we intend to include [sexual orientation and gender identity] questions on the main” survey starting next year, an NSF spokesperson wrote in a statement to Science. If that happens, the first batch of data on LGBTQ Ph.D. recipients would be released in 2026.

In the pilot, the new questions will appear at the end of the survey and respondents will be split into 20 groups, each of which will see a different formulation of the questions. For instance, some respondents will be asked whether they consider themselves to be a gender minority, whereas others will be given an opportunity to specify their gender identity by checking all that apply from an expansive list of options—for example, man, woman, transgender, gender nonconforming, nonbinary, genderfluid, or genderqueer. These questions are a departure from previous iterations of the survey, which only gave respondents the option of selecting “male” or “female.”

“This is great to see all these detailed plans before launch,” says Jon Freeman, an associate professor of psychology at Columbia University who has spent the past 5 years advocating that NSF collect data on LGBTQ scientists. “The fact that they’re taking such a comprehensive approach and trying a lot of different combinations for different kinds of sexual orientation and gender identity questions I think is really welcome.”

This isn’t the first time NSF has explored adding questions about these topics to its surveys. Earlier this year, the agency announced it will add a gender identity question to this year’s National Survey of College Graduates—a biennial survey of bachelor’s degree holders—after conducting a pilot study of 5000 respondents in 2021. (NSF declined to add a sexual orientation question, citing concerns about data quality in its 2021 test.) The new SED pilot study will examine a much wider range of questions and will be seen by more respondents; NSF estimates about 52,000 Ph.D. recipients will complete the survey between 1 July and 30 June 2024.

Freeman is pleased the agency is moving forward with testing these questions on the SED in particular. “In my mind, that’s one of the most important surveys that they conduct,” he says.

He and others are also hopeful the new pilot test will pave the way for adding such questions to NSF’s other surveys, which target scientists at different educational and career stages. “These kind of study questions have to appear on multiple surveys … for us to really be able to truly evaluate” attrition of LGBTQ people in STEM, says Lauren Esposito, an arachnologist at the California Academy of Sciences and a co-founder of 500 Queer Scientists.

The SED has an additional wrinkle of complexity beyond other surveys NSF administers: Responses are usually shared with Ph.D.-granting institutions, which presents privacy concerns for the potentially sensitive personal topics of sexual orientation and gender identity. “There is still active discrimination happening for queer and gender-nonconforming folks,” Esposito says, so any such data collected need to be handled carefully.

For the pilot test, the responses “will not be shared,” an NSF spokesperson wrote in an email to Science. The spokesperson added that the agency is exploring how to deal with this issue going forward and is considering giving respondents the option of opting out of sharing information with their doctoral institution. “I think that’s a really helpful approach,” Freeman says.

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