January 2010

Promoting Diversity in Research

Additionally, scientific researchers are better able to relate to the general public when the scientific work force has adequate minority representation. Remember the Tuskegee syphilis experiment and the 40 years of unethical treatment of African-American men that left a lasting legacy of distrust of the medical/research community? It’s that distrust that is an underlying reason why many African-Americans are not organ donors and do not participate in clinical trials. Furthermore, for the majority of this country, the autonomy of the individual in agreeing or disagreeing to participate as a research subject is paramount. But for some communities, especially some American Indian tribes, autonomy of the group outweighs that of an individual. When scientists do not reflect various communities they intend to study, there can be rampant mistrust and/or an underappreciation of certain cultural value systems.

What the NIH Is Doing

To increase the diversity of the scientific work force, the NIH requires all applicants for its predoctoral and postdoctoral institutional research training (T32) grants to submit a plan to recruit and retain individuals from underrepresented groups. At the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, we take a very serious look at these plans and their outcomes. The plans to enhance diversity are first considered by the initial review group, then by the National Advisory General Medical Sciences Council and finally by an administrative staff committee. Applications with unacceptable diversity plans are barred from funding until an updated plan is acceptable, regardless of the priority score.

NIH also provides research supplements to promote diversity in health-related research. Those “diversity supplements” provide funds to an existing NIH research grant to support an underrepresented student or postdoctoral fellow to work in a grantee’s lab. Each NIH institute or center, much like academic departments, has different policies or practices for program implementation. At NIGMS, we allow more than one student or postdoctoral fellow per NIGMS grantee for this program. This encourages principal investigators to bring multiple underrepresented participants into their labs. Also unique to NIGMS is that, beyond the college level, we expect PIs to indicate how they will foster the transition of their underrepresented graduate student or postdoctoral fellow over to traditional funds. We think of the diversity supplement program as a hand up, not a handout or entitlement, and we expect our mentors to aid in transitioning their trainees to mainstream training mechanisms.

10 Things You Can Do

There are several ways you can help increase diversity in the biomedical sciences:

1. Take on a leadership role in the diversity debate. You can “lead from below” until the “tone at the top” of your institution is as committed as you are to increasing diversity in the sciences. Organize campuswide discussions on diversity issues.

2. Participate in the NIH diversity supplement program and other underrepresented-student development programs supported by the NIGMS Minority Opportunities in Research Division.

3. Attend national minority-oriented science student conferences, such as the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students and the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science meeting, to recruit underrepresented students. More than 2,000 URM students attend each conference annually to present scientific research. A good way to interact with students is as a judge.

4. Establish partnerships with academic institutions that have high concentrations of underrepresented students. The partnerships can be used to both recruit students to your program and better prepare students for your programs. For example, talk to students and faculty at minority-serving institutions about what it takes to be competitive enough to enter your graduate program.

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