THERE MAY be a silver lining yet to the uproar over Harvard president Lawrence Summers's speculative comments about women's intrinsic ability in science. Women scientists are in the spotlight, making it clear that the question is not whether women can succeed in the sciences but how to encourage their success.
This policy issue isn't new. The National Science Foundation has been focusing on girls and women since the early 1990s. But the sizzle of the Summers scandal could highlight existing and new efforts.
In October, the National Science Foundation announced an award of $3.25 million to set up the National Center for Women and Information Technology. The 20-year goal is to create ''equal participation for women and men in information technology careers." Programs will run at the college and graduate levels and among professionals. The center could enhance science by broadening its practitioners and help women enter a growing field with competitive wages.
There's the Clare Boothe Luce Program, part of the Henry Luce Foundation in New York, which has been supporting women in science, math, and engineering since 1989 by giving a total of $106 million in grants to colleges and universities to support the work of more than 1,300 women.
Harvard has seized the day by appointing two task forces on women in the sciences. And members might gain some insights by looking at MIT, which has been tackling gender discrimination for several years.
Earlier this month, 170 middle-school-aged girls went to Simmons College for a science and technology conference run by the Girls Get Connected Collaborative. Activities included dissecting a sheep's brain and assembling dismantled computers. Girls also got referrals to the collaborative's summer and after-school programs. The focus is on middle school, when research suggests that girls' interest in science wanes. Deborah Muscella, the organizer of the conference, hopes greater awareness will lead to more funding.
Last week, 200 Girl Scouts attended a workshop at Tufts University that was run by the Boston section of the Society of Women Engineers. The girls learned about plastic, electrical, mechanical, civil, and chemical engineering and about the history of women engineers.
The Summers dispute also creates a chance to tell the stories of science, both to attract women to the field and to boost public awareness. There are the tales of collapsing stars, of chasing subatomic particles to understand how the universe was born, and of the vast research efforts made to improve human health and longevity. Harvard's controversy could lead to better opportunities for girls and ignite a passion for science.