January 2010

Promoting Diversity in Research

Championing an Inclusive Scientific Work Force


What is diversity? In the sciences, it’s the variety of interdisciplinary fields that we often combine to solve complex biomedical problems; it’s the mathematician, biologist, neurologist and physicist working together. Diversity is also an array of human characteristics that differ among us and shape our experiences.

The Problem

A current problem in today’s biomedical work force is the underrepresentation of certain groups— namely minorities (such as African-Americans, American Indians, Alaska Natives, Hispanic/Latino Americans and U.S. Pacific Islanders) and individuals with disabilities.

Disparity Chart
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau; NIH Office of the Director; National Science Foundation “Women, Minorities and Persons with Disablities in Science and Engineering Report.”

Note: Underrepresented minorites (URMs) in the biomedical sciences are African Americans, American Indians and Alaska Natives, Hispanic/Latino Americans and U.S. Pacific Islanders.

Note: While Asian Americans make up 4 percent of the U.S. population, they account for close to 14 percent of the scientific work force and are not considered underrepresented in the biomedical sciences in the U.S.


Figure 1 shows that there is a disparity in the proportion of underrepresented minorities (URMs) versus Caucasians in the sciences. While URMs represent approximately 29 percent of the U.S. demographic, they represent only approximately 4 percent of the National Institutes of Health R01 biomedical research grant holders. This same downward trajectory is not seen with Caucasians, whose representation is at or greater than parity at the noted levels. The underrepresentation in the sciences we see for URMs also holds true for individuals with disabilities: They represent 11 percent of the Bachelor of Science holders but only 1 percent of the population with scientific doctoral degrees.

You might wonder whether it really matters who is doing science as long as good science is being done. It does matter; research shows that diverse teams are better at solving complex problems (1). On homogeneous teams, unquestioned assumptions remain unquestioned, and everyone gets stuck in the same place. If we only listen to people who agree with us, we cease to grow. In the words of writer Walter Lippmann, “Where all men think alike, no one thinks very much.”

Representation does not mean mere numbers or even a quota. It means having qualified individuals from various backgrounds, perspectives and influences to strengthen our ability to solve complex scientific problems. In doing this, diversity is not just a feel-good issue or simply the right thing to do; it benefits everyone through improved outcomes.

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