Promoting equity in academic collaborations

How one institution is using the NSF ADVANCE grant to effect lasting change
Courtney Chandler
April 21, 2023

Promoting and sustaining a diverse workforce remains a challenge in the science, technology, engineering and math fields in the U.S. and worldwide. While many institutions have started to make efforts to create diverse and equitable working environments, studies have still shown that systemic inequity exists in higher education.

In recognition of the resources needed to implement and maintain meaningful change, federal science funding agencies and professional societies have developed grants, workshops and resources that institutions can take advantage of. One such resource is the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE program, which aims to increase representation and advancement of women in STEM.  

Jennifer Normanly's lab at UMass Amherst studies plant metabolic regulation and engineering. She also leads the biochemistry and molecular biology department.

This week, I spoke with Jennifer Normanly, department head and professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Normanly is part of a cohort of faculty members at UMass Amherst who have won an NSF ADVANCE grant. She shared her experience with the funding program, her cohort's goals and how the tools they’ve developed can be adopted at other institutions.

Identifying inequity

The goal of many grants centered on equity is to identify institutional barriers and then define policies and practices to break them down. Normanly said this was the approach she and her colleagues took when thinking about how to improve gender equity at UMass.

“We decided to specifically focus on collaboration and trying to establish equitable policies and practices for researchers involved in collaboration,” Normanly said.

Normanly said part of the motivation for this particular focus was the fact that many marginalized and minoritized groups don’t always feel particularly welcome in STEM fields, which can make collaborating with colleagues near and far more challenging. Further, she said, researchers need to have access to resources in order to successfully collaborate and can benefit from mentoring to learn how to ensure they are recognized and credited for their collaborative work.

“Our main goal for the campus is to foster structure changes, including policies and practices on the institutional level, and culture changes within the individual departments so that all researchers feel respected and have equal access to opportunities,” Normanly said.

Implementing change

Normanly and her colleagues received funding from the NSF ADVANCE grant starting in 2018, and the grant will end later this year. Normanly said that, although they had to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, they have still been able to document meaningful outcomes from their practices.

“For each year of our funding, we’ve had a different theme centered around our central framework of collaboration,” Normanly said.

For example, one year the theme was how faculty mentoring can be beneficial to collaboration but is often an unacknowledged labor. The group developed ways for faculty members to receive recognition for their work in this area, such as annual college-level mentoring awards and acknowledgement in promotion packages.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Normanly said, they changed course.

Courtesy of Jennifer Normanly of UMass Amherst
UMass ADVANCE is funded by the National Science Foundation to advance gender and racial equity for faculty in science and engineering. See the program goals.

“We pivoted to understand the impact of COVID-19 and how to navigate this blip in our careers,” she said. “We developed ways to help faculty document the impact of COVID and convince administration to recognize these impacts and continue to acknowledge that COVID is still impacting careers and research.”

The team also has been publishing its findings and developing resources for other institutions to use. Normanly said they have hosted webinars on various topics related to equity in research and collaboration and have developed a website with resources and tools. For example, you can find best practices and information related to creating inclusive communities, documenting COVID-19 impacts and effective seed funding practices.

Normanly said the goal is to make the lessons they’ve learned accessible to the broader community — to help implement change beyond just the UMass campus.

Following suit

For those looking to take advantage of similar funding opportunities, Normanly suggests identifying a specific goal early and establishing a cohesive team that will work on the grant together. From her experience with the ADVANCE grant, Normanly said, partnering with sociologists was crucial: The sociology research and data collection is needed to properly understand if the changes being implemented are having impact, and this kind of research is much different than that of many other STEM specialties.

Another piece of advice she had was to ensure that any goals that are part of a grant can be maintained or adopted after the funding is over, so that the outcome is lasting. For example, Normanly said UMass Amherst ADVANCE has established best practices and training resources they can continuously use when their grant funding is up, and they are trying to establish a permanent program to maintain their work.  

Lastly, Normanly said having conversations with university leadership is critical; without leadership support, meaningful change is less likely.

“You really need leadership to be authentically interested in partnering with you and the work that’s done so that the best practices that are developed can be embedded in the DNA of the campus,” Normanly said. For the ADVANCE grant, "five years is a short time, but the administration needs to be part of the process of change if it is going to last.”

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Courtney Chandler

Courtney Chandler is a biochemist and microbiologist in Baltimore, Md., and a careers columnist for ASBMB Today.

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