December 2010

Increasing Minorities in the Sciences

Despite modest increases in the number of underrepresented minorities earning doctoral degrees in the biomedical sciences, the number of tenure-track, funded URM faculty members essentially has remained unchanged for the past 40 years. (Titled "A Remedy for a National Ailment" in print version.)

Minority Affairs
It is the responsibility of the entire scientific community to promote, support, nurture and mentor underrepresented minority trainees.

It is not only a moral imperative but also the responsibility of the entire scientific community to promote, support, nurture and mentor underrepresented minority trainees. Only when we achieve equality in the diversity of the nation’s work force will the full potential of these URM populations optimally impact the progress of the U.S.

Increasing the Number of Visible Minority Investigators

We only can achieve these goals through synergistic actions by academia and government. The most critical component is to have minority investigators in key positions with high visibility for our undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral URM trainees.

Historically, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences has provided significant funding, approximately $4 billion for nearly 40 years, through the Minority Biomedical Research Support and Minority Access to Research Career programs (1, 2). These programs have positively affected the number of URM students entering biomedical research training programs and resulted in increased numbers of URM graduate students— from approximately 2.3 percent in 1973 to 3 percent in 1985 and 7.2 percent in 2003.

However, the number of URMs attaining tenure-track, National Institutes of Health-funded, research-oriented faculty positions remained disappointingly bleak during this period (3 – 5). Indeed, a National Research Council panel and NIGMS working group reviewing the NIH’s URM efforts concluded that simply obtaining a doctoral degree is too narrow a definition of success and that the NIH needs to increase its efforts if true progress is to be made in increasing URMs in principal investigator-type faculty positions. It is crucial that URM students meet URM investigators who are successful and able to sustain a career that is both intellectually and financially rewarding (2, 6).

From 1966 to 2003, the total number of doctoral degrees awarded in the life sciences increased threefold, yet the total number of tenured scientists essentially has remained constant during this period (5). Only about 39 percent of the most competitive majority doctoral students supported by NIH predoctoral fellowship grants or T32 training grants, and less than 30 percent of those trained at non-NIH institutions, gain tenure-track faculty appointments (5, 7). Thus, given the dramatically reduced number of annual URM doctoral graduates (only 294 of the 4,200 degree earners in 2003) (4, 8), it is clear that even if 30 percent of this URM pool attained tenure-track research faculty positions, it would have little effect. The very limited number of tenure-track faculty positions makes these extremely competitive (8) and is, no doubt, a key contributor to the severe shortage of URMs in research-oriented faculty positions (4).

Holistic Training Approaches

What makes a graduate student the most fit for a PI faculty position? Specifically, what are the features that most reliably correlate with success? Is it personality, critical transition choices, training history, the role of mentors, the impact of the graduate program or the postdoctoral experience? Are the features the same for URM students as for majority students?

Clearly, there are factors separate from purely academic issues that contribute to overall URM success. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County Meyerhoff and the University of California, Berkeley Biology Scholars programs, two of the most successful college programs in graduating URMs with science degrees, have been successful precisely because they specifically address nonacademic issues (9, 10). For example, these two programs have strong leaders who address social, academic and scientific enculturation; establish high expectations for performance and goals; establish URM peer support groups, tutors and mentors and actively engage in making institutional culture more inclusive and minimizing covert prejudices.

"Typically, URMs lack faculty role models of the same ethnicity throughout their training, yet this is a critical attribute for success."

While the above nonacademic factors contribute to college success, several additional factors likely have contributed to the very low rate of URMs obtaining faculty positions. These include a focus by the NIH and graduate programs on simply priming the URM pipeline without a clear plan to shepherd URM trainees to faculty positions, a lack of appreciation of the critical importance of URM mentors, ineffective enculturation of an elitist scientific attitude in URMs and poor advising on the importance of the postdoctoral experience with regard to obtaining a research faculty position. In summary, a strong case can be made that these hidden curricular and institutional cultural factors may be the most important in successfully leading URM, and even majority, graduate students to independent PI positions (11).

Postdoctoral Training

Although graduate training is formative, postdoctoral training is defining, because it delineates the work that a trainee will use to start his or her laboratory. Not surprisingly, about 20 of the most elite, research-intensive institutions have generated the vast majority of PIs who currently hold tenure-track, research-oriented faculty positions. Unfortunately, the critical importance of postdoctoral training with a top-notch scientist is not adequately emphasized to URM graduate trainees, who are less likely to move far from home for training, due to financial, cultural, personal and/or family reasons. (9, 10)

A key priority for graduate programs should be leading URM predoctoral students to postdoctoral positions with world-class scientific leaders. Trainees should pursue postdoctoral training with someone who not only does cutting-edge, world-class science but also is a good mentor. Moreover, graduate programs should set high expectations for performance and goals but also establish URM peer support groups and tutors, provide forums for substantive interactions between the most successful scientists and trainees, continuously emphasize the importance of the postdoctoral experience and provide a group of successful URM mentors as role models. It is imperative to establish a growing cadre of URM trainees who will continue to help one another through their careers, much as the Pew Scholars and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigators have done, in order to optimize for career success.

Senior Minority Faculty

Typically, URMs lack faculty role models of the same ethnicity throughout their training, yet this is a critical attribute for success. No doubt this is due to the severe paucity of URM faculty in tenure-track, research-oriented positions. Moreover, URM faculty frequently are asked to participate and provide the diversity voice and perspective on national and local committees, but this typically is uncompensated and unrewarded by promotion committees. In this regard, this group is particularly vulnerable and increasingly faced with the difficult decision to reduce their URM volunteer training activities in order to survive. Faculty members who are in this position should be afforded salary support so that they can serve as role models, fully participate in the experience and provide career advice. Perhaps funding agencies should invest more resources at the other end of the pipeline: it may be time for a URM merit award for that most rare breed of all— the highly successful, senior URM faculty.


1. Mervis, J. (2006) NIH Wants Its Minority Programs to Train More Academic Researchers. Science 312, 1119.

2. NIH Research Supplements to Promote Diversity, Report for Fiscal Year 2007.

3. Garrison, H. H., and Brown, P. W. (1985) Minority Access to Research Careers: An Evaluation of the Honors Undergraduate Research Training Program. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.

4. Merchant, J. L., and Omary, M. B. (2010) Editorial: Underrepresentation of Underrepresented Minorities in Academic Medicine: The Need to Enhance the Pipeline and the Pipe. Gastroenterology 138, 19 – 26.

5. Yewdell, J. W. (2008) How to Succeed in Science: A Concise Guide for Young Biomedical Scientists. Part 1: Taking the Plunge. Nat. Rev. Mol. Cell. Biol. 9, 413 – 416.

6. Mervis, J. (2006) NIH Told to Get Serious about Giving Minorities a Hand. Science 311, 328 – 329.

7. Pion, G. M. (2001) The Early Career Progress of NRSA Predoctoral Trainees and Fellows. NIH Publication #00-4900.

8. Committee on National Needs for Biomedical and Behavioral Scientists (2000) Addressing the Nation’s Changing Needs for Biomedical and Behavioral Scientists. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.

9. Summers, M. F., and Hrabowski III, F. A. (2006) Preparing Minority Scientists and Engineers. Science 311, 1870 – 1871.

10. Koenig, R. (2009) Minority Retention Rates in Science Are a Sore Spot for Most Universities. Science 324, 1386 – 1387.

11. Powell, D., Scott, J. L., Rosenblatt, M., Roth, P. B., and Pololi, L. (2010) Commentary: A Call for Culture Change in Academic Medicine. Academic Medicine 85, 586 – 587.

Arthur Gutierrez-Hartmann ( is a professor at the Anschutz Medical Campus of the University of Colorado-Denver School of Medicine and the recipient of the inaugural ASBMB Ruth Kirschstein Diversity in Science Award. 

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