The Federal Agencies' Perspectives on Ethnic Minority Recruitment, Retention and Training

Bertha G. Holliday and Shelby Siegel analyze reports by federal training agencies that identify disparities and challenges faced by ethnic minorities in academic and professional settings. The agencies' varying suggestions and strategies for improved ethnic minority recruitment, retention and multicultural training are also addressed.

Bertha G. Holliday, PhD
OEMA Senior Director 

Shelby Siegel
OEMA Intern – The George Washington University

Shelby SiegelThere is no way to deny that in almost every academic and professional area in America, ethnic minorities are underrepresented. For years, this fact was ignored, but is now garnering significant attention. Recruitment, retention and training strategies for minorities are being created, and are areas of high concern to many agencies and organizations. Federal agencies are highly interested in this topic, and several have published reports on the subject. And these reports are good indicators of national policy and activities related to minority training for critical health and science areas. 

This article looks at the reports created by the National Academies of Sciences (NAS), National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS). These reports identify the disparities and challenges faced by ethnic minorities in the academic and professional worlds, as well as suggest varying ways in which these problems could be solved. Indeed, many of the reports include strategic plans for minority training enhancement. 

National Center for Education Statistics 

A recent NCES comprehensive study of ethnic minorities involved in postsecondary science training was published in 2000 and titled Entry and Persistence of Women and Minorities in College Science and Engineering Education (PDF, 388KB). This report addresses two major issues: the link between high school experience and entry into science and engineering undergraduate programs, and issues of undergraduate persistence and degree attainment in science and engineering. The report primarily presents statistical data and provides no programmatic suggestions. However, the statistics presented provide insights into the best predictors of ethnic minority achievement. The study predictors were indicators of family environment and support, student behavior, self-confidence, academic preparation, the postsecondary environment.

Multivariate analyses revealed that racial/ethnic and gender gaps in entry to science and engineering studies are related to family environment, family support, student behavior, and school factors. In addition, at time of program entry, the gender gap is larger than the racial/ethnic gap. However, once enrolled in science and engineering programs, compared to White students, ethnic minority students are more likely both to not graduate within 5 years, and to change their area of study. But ethnic minority students did not exhibit higher college dropout rates. In contrast, female entrants outperformed males on indicators of degree completion and program switch. 

National Academies of Science Assessment of Minority Training 

In 2001, the NIH National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NCMHHD) contracted with the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies of Science (NAS) to assess and analyze NIH minority trainee education and career outcomes. Specifically, NRC was asked to determine if NIH minority training programs work, which are most and least successful and why, what additional factors contribute to minority trainee success, and the kind of system needed to better address assessment questions in the future (NAS, 2005, p. 2). The report (Assessment of NIH Minority Research and Training Programs: Phase 3) of that assessment was published in 2005. 

Major findings of that study are as follow:

  1. All ethnic minority trainee respondents at all levels of the educational pipeline (undergraduate to postdoc/junior faculty) viewed their research experience as the most valuable aspect of their training programs. The second most important aspect was mentoring. Career development (e.g., networking, collaborating, grantsmanship) and funding (e.g., stipends, conference travel, fellowships) also were viewed by trainees as important and valuable aspects. However, trainees at all pipeline levels consistently noted that the amount of funding received was insufficient.

  2. Study data suggest that the number of ethnic minority NIH trainees sharply declines at the postdoctoral and junior faculty level – especially among females.

  3. The quality of mentoring is in need of improvement. Programs rarely provide mentor training. Many undergraduate trainees reported their “research” experience either involved only mundane administrative tasks and/or they experienced a lack of encouragement. At the postdoctoral level, approximately 50% of minority T32 (institutional grant) trainees reported having no mentor at all.

  4. Compared with non-minority trainees, minorities published fewer papers, reported less social integration in laboratories, and had greater difficulty securing employment after receipt of the doctoral degree, (NAS, pp. 6-9).

In response to these findings, NAS recommended that “NIH should commit to continued funding of minority-research training programs” (NAS, p. 9). NAS also recommended a variety of NIH program improvement administrative actions including additional program assessment efforts and development of a relational database of a minimum data set on progress and outcomes of all (minority and non-minority) NIH-funded trainees. 

In light of the NAS report, the remainder of this article examines federal ethnic minority recruitment, retention and training strategies as revealed by recent reports and policies of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS). 

The National Science Foundation 

The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) focus on minority education and training is derived from language in its 1980 congressional reauthorization that explicitly charged the agency with the responsibility for increasing participation of ethnic minorities and other groups historically underrepresented in science and engineering (Natalicio & Menger, 1999). Consequently NSF initially developed a number of initiatives targeted to the support of minority students and researchers (e.g., fellowships, grants, etc). However, as anti-affirmative action sentiments and related legal decisions intensified, NSF increased its focus on institutionally-based strategies (vs. grants to individuals) for minority training. 

Best known of these “broadening participation” initiatives is NSF’s Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation, (LSAMP) which was established in 1991 and funds alliances (or partnerships) among community colleges, 4-year and graduate institutions, and industry that focus on increasing the number of ethnic minority students who receive BA/BSs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines and subsequently pursue graduate studies in these disciplines, A sister program, Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professorate (AGEP) was established in 1998 and supports innovative models for both recruiting, retaining and training minority graduate STEM students, and identifying and supporting ethnic minorities interested in pursuing academic careers. NSF also maintains programs (and seeks to increase funding) targeted to Historically Black institutions (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges (TCUs), women, persons with disabilities, and urban K-12 schools, as well as more traditional fellowship programs.

Such institutional strategies are increasingly buttressed by a systems (change) approach. For example, the NSF Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering (CEOSE) 2004 Decennial Report to Congress (PDF, 1.5MB) emphasized the need for “pathways” (not “pipelines”) for underrepresented groups – the creation of which would require addressing the varying processes and experiences related to an individual’s attraction, retention, persistence and attachment to a specific career path. Further, the report noted that the creation of such pathways would require “institutional transformation” related to curriculum, teaching approaches, mentoring, career opportunities, role models, decision-making processes, reward structure, resource allocation, and ways of collaborating.

In 2007, as part of an effort to more actively pursue interagency coordination of federal agencies that administered STEM-related workforce diversity programs, NSF commissioned a survey of these offices. Some key findings were: (a) Funding for these programs had not kept pace with demand for the programs and (b) the agencies desired to engage in information sharing especially related to best practices, joint program funding and greater program coordination (re: common objectives and coordination). In 2008, consistent with its “new policy levers” thrust, CEOSE recommended that NSF establish policy that requires all NSF grant applications to address, under the “broader impacts” criterion, the subject of how their proposal relates to the broadening of participation (2007-2008 CEOSE Biennial Report to Congress  (PDF, 507KB)). 

The National Institute of Mental Health 

In 2001, NIMH’s National Advisory Mental Health Council Workgroup on Racial/Ethnic Diversity in Research Training and Health Disparities Research issued a report entitled An Investment in America’s Future: Racial/Ethnic Diversity in Mental Health Research Careers (PDF, 535KB), which has provided partial guidance to NIMH’s current ethnic minority training policies. Recommendations and strategic actions proposed by this report include:

(a) creating a tracking system to monitor the career progression of NIMH trainees,

(b) establishing a national mentoring program,

(c) concentrating resources on post-doctoral stages of careers,

(d) expanding networks and partnerships among other federal agencies, pharmaceutical industries, and minority - serving institutions,

(e) making sure NIMH review boards are ethnically diverse, and (f) conducting annual reviews of programs that target ethnic minorities to ensure they work and continue to be relevant.

The NIMH increased emphasis on supporting ethnic minority training at the postdoctoral level was recently reiterated by its termination of two longstanding minority training initiatives:

(a) The Minority Fellowship Program, which provided grants to mental health scientific/professional associations (including APA) to identify and provide financial support to minority/ disabled/disadvantaged students pursuing doctoral training in a mental health discipline, and

(b) the Career Opportunities in Research (COR) Honors Undergraduate Research Training Grants, which provided funding to predominantly ethnic minority/diverse undergraduate institutions (including approximately 20 psychology departments/programs that each were funded for approximately $300,000 per year) for both support of minority/disabled/disadvantaged students interested in pursuing mental health research careers, and strengthening of an institution’s mental health-related science curriculum.

Consequently, NIMH’s emerging strategy for promoting training of ethnic minority researchers increasingly appears to be non-responsive to the question as to what will be the “pipeline” or “pathway” to postdoctoral status. 

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences 

In contrast to NIMH’s apparent retreat from a comprehensive ethnic minority pipeline training strategy, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) and its Minority Opportunities in Research (MORE) Division has one of the most aggressive minority training strategies of the NIH institutes, involving formal planning, review and evaluation processes. The current NIGMS minority training strategy is guided to a great extent by the National Advisory General Medical Sciences Council MORE Division 2006 Final Report and the 2007 Response to that report by the NiGMS Biomedical Workforce Diversity Committee. These reports emphasize strengthening of the ethnic minority/disability/disadvantaged pipeline at all levels of postsecondary education into early career research activities. In addition, this strategy involves:

  • centralization within NIGMS of leadership for development of a diverse biomedical/behavioral workforce;

  • sharpening the focus of MORE’s goal to increase the number of underrepresented PhD’s and faculty in colleges and universities through increased emphases on training of students and postdocs, and use of MORE programs at minority-serving institutions for support of teaching and developing student research competence (i.e., not for development of institutional research capacity);

  • promoting research training partnerships between minority- serving institutions and research institutions (e.g, through summer research programs), as a means for providing student research opportunities;

  • promoting post-baccalaureate programs for students who are either new recruits to research in a specific biomedical discipline or “at risk” for graduate school success;

  • establishment of a Faculty Career Award to honor and support faculty efforts to promote diversity;

  • increasing the number of underrepresented participants in top-ranked graduate and postdoctoral programs (e.g., by linking funding decisions for training grants to minority recruitment and retention success); and

  • encouraging increased program evaluation — including the development of a NIH-wide data base of NIH training statistics. (NIGMS Biomedical Workforce Diversity Committee, 2007). 

Currently, NIGMS is requesting stakeholder comment related to its development of a Strategic Plan for Research Training.


The reports of the five federal agencies discussed above, clearly indicate their interest and commitment to broader participation of ethnic minorities in mental health careers and research. National data are beginning to be collected and analyzed that serve to enhance our understanding of both the source of ethnic minority underrepresentation and the strategies that are most likely to increase such representation. Despite differences in perspective and strategies among the agencies, a theory and technology of ethnic minority recruitment, retention and training is emerging. Hopefully, the growing body of data and experience will facilitate increased inter-agency coordination and the development of a coordinated national strategy related to the broader participation of ethnic minorities and other underrepresented groups in science and related academic, service and research activities. 

Shelby Siegel is a junior at The George Washington University. She is a psychology major. She is originally from New Orleans, Louisiana. She spent two past summers working as a camp counselor and teaching assistant for elementary school-aged children at the Isidore Newman School in New Orleans. She spent another summer working with pre-school children at the Crested Butte Creative Arts Camp in Crested Butte, Colorado. Shelby is also fluent in French.