Reports & Research

Cultivating Effective STEM Leaders


The National Science Foundation commissioned ICF to conduct a literature review on the topic of STEM leadership development. Although a fair amount is known about the profile of STEM leaders as a category and about the typical issues they face in the course of their managerial and scientific work, further exploration can help identify the human capital initiatives best suited for this population. Maximizing the effectiveness of STEM professionals as leaders of people—in addition to their seminal role as intellectual leaders—poses challenges and opportunities for any organization.

To continue fostering STEM leader development to meet the nation’s needs, members of the STEM community should consider the following trends and their implications:

  • Acknowledge patterns of constrained or declining public sector and research resources that likely will continue. Develop initiatives focused on creating a leadership cadre that can successfully engage in interdisciplinary work in an era of constrained resources.

  • Explore the implications of the trend that academia (the source of most STEM leaders) has increasingly shifted toward a reliance on contingency faculty, thus creating the next generation of STEM leaders with less organizational work experience.

  • Create developmental initiatives that address the challenges posed by federal agency work environments that are characterized by bureaucracies with extensive policies and procedures, fixed position descriptions, internal management chains, and strong external oversight.

  • Examine meaningful differences across various “types” of STEM leaders and career phases. Encourage research to draw evidence-based conclusions about unique characteristics of STEM leaders and the demands facing them.

  • Continue examining and addressing challenges of women and minorities in academic STEM settings. Leverage existing research on the importance of managed development and succession programs, international collaboration, and multidisciplinary teams.

  • Acknowledge how STEM leaders commonly interact with other scientists who are more comfortable serving as individual contributors than within a team environment and with nonscientists from diverse backgrounds. Evolve development methods focused on expanding STEM leaders’ conflict management abilities and on building a team culture of autonomy and accountability.

By Dr. Rebecca Mulvaney