May 2012

ASBMB addresses the issue of diversity in the biomedical research work force

Over the past four decades, the National Institutes of Health has been dedicated to encouraging scientists from underrepresented racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds to participate and succeed in the biomedical research enterprise. A 2011 report in the journal Science cast an alarming shadow over these efforts. The study showed that black researchers were 10 percent less likely to receive NIH funding than white researchers (1). What was perhaps most striking was that the disparity remained even when potentially confounding factors, such as education, training, previous research award success and publication record, were accounted for.

Understandably, leadership at the NIH found the study results not only surprising but also highly disturbing. In response, NIH Director Francis S. Collins created a working group charged with developing recommendations to address diversity and focusing on five transition points in the work-force pipeline:

  1. 1) entry into graduate-degree programs,
  2. 2) the transition from graduate degree to postdoctoral fellowship,
  3. 3) the move from a postdoctoral position to the first independent scientific position,
  4. 4) the award of the first independent research grant from the NIH or equivalent in industry and
  5. 5) the award of tenure in an academic position or equivalent in an industrial setting.

In January, the working group requested input from the research community on several topics, including training, the role of mentorship and role models, access to the application process for NIH grants and fellowships, and ways to address potential biases in the peer-review process.  

A joint committee composed of several members of the ASBMB Public Affairs Advisory and the Minority Affairs committees put forth a number of recommendations. Several addressed access to resources for minority scientists. Currently, each institute at the NIH manages its own resources for minority researchers. The ASBMB recommended creating a single, centralized database for all intramural resources for minority scientists, creating a one-stop shop where individuals can easily access information on scholarships, training programs, and mentoring and networking groups.

The ASBMB also addressed the obstacles facing early-career scientists, specifically the lack of training in and exposure to the grant-writing and review process. The ASBMB recommended that the NIH identify and develop new opportunities for early-career scientists to expand their grant-writing skills and gain experience with the peer-review process.

Finally, the ASBMB addressed mentorship. Because many universities still have low numbers of minority students and faculty members, professional societies are uniquely positioned to create networks that can reach across institutions. The ASBMB encouraged societies to develop and foster more opportunities for mentorship among early and established researchers.

“We need to play an active role in providing minority scientists and their research programs more exposure,” emphasizes Squire Booker, associate professor of chemistry and of biochemistry and molecular biology at The Pennsylvania State University and chairman of the ASBMB Minority Affairs Committee. “In this highly competitive game of securing research funds, name recognition goes a long way. Having someone on a study section who can vouch for you and the quality of your work is critical, especially in the absence of a long track record.”

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