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US National Academies launches search for evidence-based programmes to support scientist parents

The advisory organization wants to halt exodus of caregivers from research.
Kendall Powell is a freelance writer in Boulder, Colorado.

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Father holding his baby at home.

New parents leave full-time science positions at an alarming rate.Credit: Getty

‘Work devotion’ is probably one of the factors driving carers out of science, says an expert panel. The term names the expectation that scientists’ work will consume all waking hours, allowing for no outside obligations. The US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) hopes to help carers to overcome such attitudes and other obstacles to success, to staunch the flow of highly trained people out of research.

In December, NASEM convened a workshop in Washington DC to discuss the exodus of carers, particularly new mothers, from full-time careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) — along with potential solutions. The workshop was hosted by the academies’ Committee on Women in Science, Engineering and Medicine (CWSEM), which is launching an initiative to investigate how well various support policies and practices for working families have succeeded, aiming to come up with best practices for retaining parents in STEM.

“There is a labour shortage in many STEM fields, and concerns that we need more people and a diverse workforce,” says Mary Blair-Loy, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego, who gave a presentation at the workshop. “At the same time, almost half of women are leaving.”

Last year, Blair-Loy and sociologist Erin Cech at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor found that 43% of US women working in full-time STEM positions in academia, government and industry leave those jobs after their first child is born or they adopt for the first time1. That number is unsurprising to many, given that lots of US institutions lack adequate support for new parents, especially mums.

Lack of support

In the United States, only 23% of people working at universities and colleges have access to paid parental leave, and many campuses don’t provide adequate lactation spaces for breastfeeding researchers. Last September, more than 1,400 early-career researchers sent a letter to Francis Collins, director of the US National Institutes of Health, to petition for better parental-leave policies, support for the transition back to work and help with paying childcare costs.

But Blair-Loy’s study makes it clear that the problem is not restricted to academia, nor to mums. Rather, it points to systemic problems for all parents in full-time STEM positions across the academic, industry, government and non-profit employment sectors. Nearly one-quarter of new fathers — 23% — left their full-time positions in STEM shortly after their first child arrived.

A good portion of men (18%) and women (12%) who left those jobs moved into full-time non-STEM positions. But women were more likely than men to leave the workforce entirely, or to leave for part-time STEM work. (The researchers’ data source did not count people who fall outside the gender binary, or include a measure for transgender status.) Almost none of the exiting parents had returned to full-time STEM positions even four to seven years after having or adopting a child.

Incompatible environments

These proportions suggest that for many US parents, full-time STEM careers in any employment sector are incompatible with raising families. Participants in the CWSEM workshop identified work devotion as a possible factor. “This is the mandate that a scientist’s work is a calling that demands undivided allegiance,” says Alex Helman, a programme officer with the committee.

Parent scientists are often thought to be less committed or productive than their childless peers, but Blair-Loy shows that this is a myth. At the workshop, she shared data from an unpublished study of more than 500 STEM researchers at a leading US public university in which she found no differences in productivity between parents and non-parents in terms of grant dollars awarded, papers published or hours worked.

Workshop participants also discussed how many women feel burdened by a need to hide the reality of family life from their supervisors and colleagues. Otherwise, women fear they will be judged as insufficiently devoted to their work, given poor evaluations or passed over for promotion. The workshop underscored how often family-friendly and work–life balance policies were not adopted or applied evenly across campuses or across departments. The CWSEM hopes to address this imbalance in its investigation, and determine how to ensure that the best practices and policies are also implemented evenly and effectively.

Many new parents experience a structural mismatch between their STEM working environments and their family needs, says Kathleen Christensen, a programme director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York City, a research-funding charity focused on STEM areas and economics.

Evidence-based solutions

To fix that mismatch, Christensen suggests that universities and other STEM workplaces need innovative solutions.

As an example, she points to a Sloan-funded pilot programme at Stanford University School of Medicine in California that addressed how working parents were starved for time. The programme allowed faculty members to ‘bank’ time that they spent on teaching, service or mentoring duties, and exchange it for services paid for by the university, including home meal delivery, babysitting or hiring lab technicians or grant writers. Faculty members who had time-banking help wrote 22 grant proposals; 41% were awarded, a much higher success rate than in the faculty as whole. They brought in a total of US$10 million for research.

The CWSEM wants to gather evidence of other initiatives that effectively address work–family balance in STEM careers, says Ashley Bear, a senior programme officer at NASEM. “The committee will be pursuing a major effort on this, with the focus very much on these promising practices and, ideally, solutions to improve the situation,” she says.

Funding agencies also have a role in rethinking the structure of STEM work, says Christensen. They could make a difference by bankrolling re-entry programmes for parents who have left STEM, or by creating new types of position, such as postdoctoral job-shares or other high-value part-time posts.

Christensen calls the modern workplace an artefact of the twentieth century, designed for men in families with only one working parent. “There’s a poverty of imagination about how we could or should rethink the structure of work,” she says.

Blair-Loy agrees that there is a huge untapped opportunity for STEM employers to find ways to retain parents. “These are highly educated, trained people who presumably had a love of science and a good income,” she says.


  1. 1.

    Cech, E. A. & Blair-Loy, M. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 116, 4182–4187 (2019).

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