How Innovation Must Be Part of the Solution to Address Income Inequality and Racial Tension

Few Research & Development (R&D) grants go to Minority Serving Institutions in America. It’s time for that to change as part of a solution to America’s ongoing racial divide.

By Darold Hamlin, 

50 years ago in Selma, Alabama African Americans took a stand for social justice that shifted the consciousness of a nation.

Today, America is seemingly once again on the brink when it comes to social justice – Ferguson, Baltimore and now the University of Missouri.  Is it the precursor of things to come because of lack of economic participation fuels hopelessness for many people of color?  Will this become a more common occurrence as black and brown people will be the majority in just 25 years from now?

The question we must then ask ourselves as a nation (E Pluribus Unum, Out of Many We are One), at such a moment, beyond the protests and righteous anger is this: What is the solution to help bring African American and minority communities into the mainstream of America and the global economy of the 21st century?

We believe that the time has come for us to finish the work of the great Civil Rights marches and movements of the 20th century by focusing a national agenda on true economic empowerment, high-tech job creation, and wealth building in communities of color. We can do this through research and development partnerships with the federal government, tech and innovation companies, and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs).

To be specific: it starts with Presidential Executive Order 13532 — Promoting Excellence, Innovation, and Sustainability at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) – that directs federal agencies to work with MSIs to garner their fair share of the over $135 Billion this country spends annually on Research and Development.  At the same time, MSIs who make up more than six percent of the nation’s research institutions, only receive less than one percent of the funds according to a report published by the Congressional Research Service.

Earlier this year, Johns Hopkins University President Daniels wrote a powerful piece on the “Graying of R&D dollars” ( He was spot on about the problem that is being created by an R&D system that sends a majority of its dollars through the hands of older white male researchers.

A little known, but important fact is that MSI/HBCUs produce the majority of America’s talented researchers of color. The challenge they face, however, is that the schools don’t have the infrastructure or resources to compete with established research universities.  MSI/HBCU’s have two factors against them.  First, as aforementioned, our top majority universities get a disproportionate amount of federal R&D money.   Secondly, the peer review process that is required to win a research grant before becoming a recipient is onerous at best.  Over the last 50 years the gap has widened between the schools that win research grants and those who do not.  Today, 100 out of the 650 research institutions get (80%) eighty percent of the R&D dollars.  Broadening the pool for the distribution of research dollars is an American issue. It is not just a black or brown issue.

To sum up our point: MSIs can help America better compete in the 21st Century global economy and create real jobs and employment opportunities for America’s next generation as well.  First, MSIs must receive the research funding to complement the research already being done. This must be a priority for the Congress.  It should start with Minority Health Disparities Research because that is the field where minorities have the highest concentration of research professionals.  The Federal Government spends $2.7B a year on why minorities are not as healthy as the rest of the population; yet MSI/HBCUs do very little of the research.  A portion of those research dollars must be targeted and put in the hands of talented minority researcher so they can develop the next remedies for hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, new medical data and diagnostics systems.

Secondly, we must maximize STEM researchers and their opportunity to conduct research that will lead to the creation of new economy companies creating good paying jobs.  Next, we need to create business networks around those talented researchers, so that when a new discovery is created, they have the business and financial support to turn the research into next generation products and services.  This is a paradigm shift for minority business development in America that focuses on services contracts.  Finally, state and local governments must provide incentives for next generation companies to locate in and around our disenfranchised communities and train the local residents. Technology companies need a wide variety of workers with different skill sets.  This is the same model implemented successfully by our foreign competitors i.e. Israel, China and India.

We believe that the critical missing link to how we address inequities in the social and criminal justice system in America is to level the playing field in job creation, innovation, technology and STEM in communities of color.  This generation of researchers, for example, can be involved in the creation of the next generation medical imaging system or patient management systems that can not only reduce health care costs and improve the population readiness for military service, but also contributes to the economy by producing these new products and services in every community.

Yes, it is important that we continue to march and raise our voices when social injustice rears its ugly head, but what we need now is an economic action strategy that will prepare all Americans to be part of the 21st Century global economy. Economic inclusion was a very big part of Dr. King’s vision for America. He summed it up best in his “it is not just a legal or moral question, but a matter of economics as well.”  The riots should motivate us to focus our national resources on winning the innovative war of the 21st Century that will create new economy companies and jobs in every community.  President Obama was right when he said we must “Win the Future.”