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.)
|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?