March/April 2021Vol. XXXIII No. 4

Comment from Maria Zuber, E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics and Vice President for Research

Maria Zuber

One of the things I most admire about MIT is our willingness to look at ourselves in the mirror and acknowledge that we need to do better.

In 1999, MIT released “A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT,” which quantified for the first time the disparity of resources and opportunities for female faculty members in comparison to their male colleagues. The study, rich in data, inspired policy changes that have improved equity and removed many obstacles for female faculty.Those changes, which are a work-in-progress, have appreciably improved the campus academic environment. Significantly, however, those changes did not address the world outside of MIT – specifically, the breadth of professional opportunities available to many male faculty. A next step in the quest for true equity lies in the realm of entrepreneurship and commercialization.

Taking up that challenge, in 2019 three senior women faculty – Sangeeta Bhatia, Susan Hockfield, and Nancy Hopkins – created the Boston Biotech Working Group. Using data collection and analysis, the group set out to explore the opportunities available to female faculty in biotech entrepreneurship. They convened stakeholders from the academic, medical, biotech, and venture communities, and they investigated service on scientific advisory councils and boards, access to venture capitalist funding, and companies started.

Many of their findings, detailed in this issue, are instructive and indicate a path forward. But one of them – which identified 40 “missing companies” that would have been formed had our women been accorded the same encouragement and access accorded to the men – was a gut punch for me. MIT prides itself on being immersed in an innovation ecosystem that helps translate our ideas into action. Yet we are clearly underachieving, because we’re not advancing all of the most promising results from our labs.

But at MIT, data is power. The data collected by the Boston Biotech Working Group are already leading to actions that may ultimately help build careers, drive economic growth, and even save lives. While this study focused on women, ongoing data collection extends to other underrepresented groups on the faculty, with the aim of maximizing the number of discoveries – made on the bench by all of us at MIT – that we get to the marketplace.