March 2011

Barriers to minority funding

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 (sonia.flores@ucdenver.edu) is a professor of medicine at the University of Colorado Denver. Takita Sumter (sumtert@winthrop.edu) is an associate professor of chemistry at Winthrop University.

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