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08 March 2023
Funding woes force 500 Women Scientists to scale back operations

The 7-year-old nonprofit organization 500 Women Scientists, which works to improve inclusion and diversity in STEM and medicine, is scaling back operations and eliminating its five paid staff positions after failing to secure stable funding.

The organization, which detailed the changes in an email to supporters and journalists on Tuesday, will keep running its online directory of woman and gender diverse experts in science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine (STEMM), but will terminate its fellowship program supporting women of color.

The announcement has been met with dismay from the organization’s supporters. “That there’s not enough support” for the group’s work with minorities in STEMM “speaks volumes about system failures,” says Alyssa Whitcraft, a geographer at the University of Maryland, College Park, who has donated to 500 Women Scientists and is listed in its directory. Helen Whitehead, a lecturer in environment and sustainability at the University of Salford who coordinates one of the organization’s local chapters, calls the news a “shock” and a step backward for promoting equity in science.

“None of this feels good,” says 500 Women Scientists Co-Founder Jane Zelikova, a climate change scientist at Colorado State University. The organization will return to being run by volunteers juggling full-time academic careers, she adds. “The board of directors is going to do our very best to continue moving things forward. But we are going to have to run many programs at minimal capacity.”

500 Women Scientists began as a grassroots movement following the 2016 U.S. presidential election and quickly gained momentum. It now has more than 500 local chapters, called “pods,” worldwide.

One of its early efforts, which gained international attention, was establishing the Request a Woman Scientist directory as a resource for journalists, policymakers, and others looking for expertise from underrepresented voices. The project, renamed Gage in 2021, now includes more than 15,000 women and gender-diverse people from more than 140 countries around the world.

Liz McCullagh, a neuroscientist at Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, who co-founded the project, says that with the technical work on the platform completed, Gage can continue to operate. But 500 Women Scientists will end its Fellowship for the Future program, which provided a $5000 stipend, leadership training, and other support to women of color working to make STEMM fields more inclusive and equitable.

McCullagh emphasizes that the situation does not reflect on the staff, who went “above and beyond.” Instead, she blames an unstable funding landscape where grant providers, who supplied the bulk of the group’s funds alongside donations from individuals and corporations, release money for specific projects rather than for staff or infrastructure.

This kind of restricted funding from foundations is a perennial problem for small nonprofits, says Isabel Torres, co-founder and CEO of the advocacy organization Mothers in Science, which has partnered with 500 Women Scientists on several projects. “It limits creativity, it limits long-term planning.”

Recent funders of 500 Women Scientists include the Simons Foundation, which declined to comment, and Lyda Hill Philanthropies. “Our philosophy at Lyda Hill Philanthropies is that science is the answer to many of the problems the world is facing,” it said in a statement. “We have supported 500 Women Scientists and women in science-focused organizations across the country because we need more women in science.”

Ebony McGee, a professor of diversity and STEM education at Vanderbilt University, says she is saddened but not surprised by 500 Women Scientists’s situation. It’s ironic that although U.S. funders have pledged billions of dollars to diversity, equity, and inclusion, 500 Women Scientists—“who are actually women and women of color, on the ground doing the work and doing it from a lived experience”—have been unable to maintain even a small staff, she says.

Zelikova says bringing about structural transformation in science is still central to the organization’s mission, and the board will now discuss how best to achieve it. “We don’t want to end up in the same situation where we’re again beholden to foundations for support in a way we don’t think is sustainable or equitable.”