March 2011

Barriers to minority funding

Recently, the ASBMB MAC undertook an initiative to identify the perceived barriers faced by underrepresented minority faculty applying for extramural funding


MAC working group members

• Takita Felder Sumter, Winthrop University (Chair)
• Sonia C. Flores, University of Colorado Denver
• Regina Stevens-Truss, Kalamazoo College
• Craig Cameron, The Pennsylvania State University
• Squire Booker, The Pennsylvania State University
• Thomas Landefeld, California State University, Dominguez Hills
• Barbara Gordon, ASBMB
• Gail Pinder, ASBMB

Despite concerted national efforts to increase the participation of minorities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the number of underrepresented individuals in these fields remains disproportionately low. To help counteract this trend, federal funding agencies have introduced several initiatives to increase the numbers of underrepresented minority investigators participating in competitions for basic research support; nevertheless, minorities still submit only a small fraction of the total applications for federal funding.

The ASBMB assessment

To help address this problem, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Minority Affairs Committee recently undertook an initiative to identify perceived barriers faced by biochemistry, cellular biology and molecular biology faculty members from underrepresented groups or from minority-serving institutions when applying for extramural funding. We conducted a detailed assessment using surveys, interviews and a convened focus group discussion in an effort to identify accurately the perceived barriers for URM investigators in securing research funding. The ASBMB MAC working group engaged the strategy consulting firm AltshulerGray for these purposes; the working group sought to include perspectives of faculty, institutional administrators and program officers in the assessment.

Principal investigators who submitted grants to funding agencies and who self-identified as belonging to an underrepresented group or from an MSI received an explanation of the project and an invitation to participate in an online survey. Of the 159 investigators who were invited, 82 (52 percent) responded. Survey demographics indicated that respondents represented a wide range of institutions and career stages. The consultants conducted interviews of university administrators and program officers; survey respondents then participated in a two-and-a-half day focus group-style workshop. We hope that the results of the surveys, interviews and focus group discussions will provide key information for the general academic community, scientific societies and funding agencies. In general, adequate mentoring was identified as an underlying need for all faculty participants, and a formal mentoring plan of action that impacts URM audiences is imperative.

The major barriers and needs

1. Ineffective communication streams between URMs and funding agencies
The survey indicated that knowledge about available funding opportunities is lacking. The group felt that more user-friendly websites with a central repository of information would improve their awareness of funding opportunities. In addition to funding newsletters published by the sponsoring agencies, the group suggested that professional societies like ASBMB should develop a road map for new investigators to use to navigate the web of extramural funding. This document should describe the various funding and review processes, explain the requirements for grant submissions and provide tips for structuring successful applications.

2. Lack of support networks for minority PIs
Lack of a strong network was identified as a major obstacle. Faculty members at large research institutions often are in environments with few minority peers, while faculty at smaller schools and MSIs have few colleagues who can serve as role models and mentors; the quality of applications reflects these deficiencies. Workshop participants suggested annual or semi-annual mentoring panels with program directors and senior investigators focusing on grant writing. To build upon the networks created by these workshops, an online community of minority scientists should be created. This social network would maintain regular mentor-protégé dialogues and provide resources via web seminars on topics like how to choose a good mentor and how to navigate the funding process.

3. Funding agencies have a review process that is less than clear
For URM faculty who do submit proposals to federal funding agencies, the review process often seems frustratingly opaque; as a result, faculty members become frustrated and therefore less likely to reapply. To address this, the group expressed the need for a user-friendly flow chart clearly detailing review and award criteria and a presubmission process for applications. The group also expressed the need for continued efforts on behalf of faculty, professional societies and funding agencies to engage URMs as proposal reviewers.

4. Leaky pipeline of minority talent
The current pipeline of minority talent in academia is leaking at all stages, negatively affecting the entire research enterprise. These leaks reduce the number of minorities who ultimately pursue scientific careers and hamper the success of URM scientists. With too few minority students pursuing scientific studies, minority PIs, particularly those at smaller institutions and MSIs, often lack the trainees necessary to conduct research effectively. Ultimately, the number of applications funding agencies receive from minorities is limited by the number of URMs in STEM disciplines. Workshop participants offered several innovative ways for making science exciting and relevant for K – 12 students in an effort to foster the interests of the next generation of scientists.

5. Lack of URM-directed initiatives
The group argued that additional URM-directed initiatives and nondirected funding opportunities should exist; however, simply making more targeted money available was not considered a panacea. Rather, any new grants must be structured for success and prepare grantees to enter the general funding pool. Thus, funding agencies could increase the length of seed awards and allow time for faculty to produce results, an issue particularly relevant at smaller institutions. Moreover, the need for awards targeting critical career stages (e.g., postdoctoral fellow to independent researcher and junior faculty to mid-career researcher) was highlighted. At the same time, applicants’ work should be held to high standards that, though taking into account the unique circumstances at MSIs, encourage minority faculty to perform research that will sustain their competitiveness for future funding.

The problem of minority underrepresentation in the sciences is complex. It will take a concerted effort from all stakeholders to reverse this trend. However, there are opportunities for scientific societies, academic institutions, federal funding agencies and individual minority investigators to work together to increase the number of URM scientists actively and successfully participating in the national research enterprise. The MAC historically has employed an aggressive and multifaceted approach to increasing the representation, participation, visibility and contributions of minorities in the molecular life science disciplines and will continue these efforts.

Sonia C. Flores ( is a professor of medicine at the University of Colorado Denver. Takita Sumter ( is an associate professor of chemistry at Winthrop University.

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