NIH diversity supplements offer a pathway to independence

Raechel McKinley
Nov. 29, 2023

Science thrives when diverse minds work together. However, diversity in the biomedical research workforce lags behind U.S. demographics. African Americans, Native Americans and people identifying as Latinx make up roughly 37% of the population but remain underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, representing only 16% of STEM doctoral degree holders.

To add to those disparities, retention of these groups dwindles further up the career pipeline, with a corresponding loss of diverse talent, especially in academic research.

Marie A. Bernard

The National Institutes of Health began providing diversity supplements in 1989 with the goal of increasing funding rates to historically excluded racial groups and increasing diversity in the biomedical science workforce. These supplements now help individuals from underrepresented racial groups, women and individuals with disabilities persist in the biomedical science workforce.

Unlike many diversity-related funding mechanisms at the NIH, diversity supplements can fund scholars across career stages from high school students to junior faculty members, and they are reviewed by program officers, rather than subjected to the review process used for other funding mechanisms.

A November 2022 seminar on diversity supplements hosted by Marie A. Bernard, chief officer of scientific workforce diversity at the NIH, highlighted programs of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the National Institute on Aging. NINDS representatives said graduate students and postdocs who received the supplements from 2017 to 2019 had better rates in fellowship and career development awards than those who did not.

“NIH has long offered the opportunity for diversity supplements to enhance the involvement of researchers from diverse backgrounds, including those from groups underrepresented in biomedical and behavioral research,” Bernard said.

However, she added, the funding mechanism is underutilized.

“I would encourage every scientist with NIH funding to consider adding members to the research team via a diversity supplement,” she said, “as the data show that diverse perspectives contribute to creativity and innovation in science.”

Successful but not used

The American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s Public Affairs Advisory Committee meets annually with federal agencies. In their 2023 meeting, PAAC members heard the same message from many institutes: Diversity supplements are underutilized.

Shantá Hinton
Shantá Hinton

Shantá Hinton, a member of the PAAC and a professor of biology at the College of William & Mary, said of the supplements, “The majority of the scientific community are not aware that they exist, do not understand the broad usage of these supplements and/or do not understand the mechanisms to apply for them.”

A 2021 study by researchers at Yale University analyzed the use of diversity supplements on the NIH’s most common investigator-initiated grant mechanism, the R01, and found that from 2005 to 2020, while the number of diversity supplements on R01s increased, only 4.5% of active R01 awards received one of these supplements.

PAAC members also learned in their meetings that each NIH institute runs the program differently. To shine a light on these differences, ASBMB public affairs staff conducted a deeper dive into the data.

An ASBMB issue brief

The ASBMB public affairs staff released an issue brief in September that analyzed the unique attributes of each diversity supplement program. They found that the institutes administering the most supplements shared the following conditions: The supplements were supported and structured as a scholar program, the institutes offered additional programming such as workshops, and the institutes required applications for early-career awards such as postdoctoral fellowship or career development grant awards.

In the analysis, four institutes stood out: the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Cancer Institute.

NINDS hosts a biweekly podcast called Building Up the Nerve to guide trainees through the grant-writing process. NIDA hosts a two-day grant application and professional development workshop for those receiving supplements. Both NIGMS and NIA require individual development plans for supplement applications.

Conversely, institutes that issued fewer diversity supplements did not provide any additional programming or require submissions for future funding. One of those is the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. In the brief, the ASBMB urged the NIAID to partner with NIGMS and NINDS to restructure its programs with the goal of increasing interest and boosting the number of awardees.

The society suggested that the NIH harmonize its diversity supplement programs by urging all participating institutes to adopt the requirements of those issuing the greatest number of diversity supplements.

The brief also recommended that Congress allocate more funding for diversity supplements, specifically for NIGMS and NINDS.

Read the entire issue brief: National Institute of Health Diversity Supplements: Pathway to Independence.

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Raechel McKinley

Raechel McKinley is ASBMB's science policy manager.

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