Government Relations Update

NIH to implement multiple initiatives to increase diversity of scientific workforce

Strategies include mentored research program for undergraduates and scrutiny of peer review process.

By Karen Studwell

The Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) met in December 2012 to discuss how NIH will implement the final recommendations of the ACD’s Working Group on Diversity in the Biomedical Research Workforce (WGDBRW). As previously reported in the Psychological Science Agenda, NIH Director Francis Collins created the WGDBRW in response to an NIH-commissioned article published in Science in 2011 that found that black applicants were less likely to receive an NIH R01 grant than white applicants, even after controlling for a variety of factors. The WGDBRW issued its recommendations in July 2012 and NIH has responded with four approaches for implementing the recommendations.

Over the past year, the WGDBRW explored some of the potential causes for the differential funding success rates observed between ethnic/racial groups and asked for input from the broader scientific community, including the American Psychological Association, as it sought to develop both immediate and long-term strategies for NIH programs that address barriers across five key training and career transition points: 

  1. Entry into graduate/professional degree programs.

  2. Transition from graduate student to postdoctoral research.

  3. Transition from a postdoctoral position to the first employment/identification as an independent scientist.

  4. Award of the first independent research grant from NIH or equivalent agency in a non-academic setting.

  5. Establishment of an independent research program and emergence as a nationally recognized senior investigator.

In response, an Implementation Team was established to determine how NIH could best prioritize and implement the various recommendations and strategies. Speaking to the ACD in December, NIH Deputy Director and WGDBRW Co-Chair Larry Tabak provided an overview of NIH’s attempts to translate the recommendations into four broad initiatives. Tabak reiterated that the “two main goals of these initiatives are to increase the diversity of the NIH-funded workforce because we have compelling evidence that this will help us accomplish our mission and to ensure that all applicants are treated fairly in the peer review system.”

According to Tabak, the NIH will rely on four interrelated approaches:

  1. Create the NIH Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD) Program, which would provide rigorous mentored research experience for approximately 600 undergraduate students per year, two summers during college and up to two years post-graduation, as well as undergraduate tuition scholarships for up to two years and the possibility of loan repayment in graduate school. The program would provide salary offset and infrastructure support for key faculty responsible for undergraduate research training, resources for highly effective mentors to train new mentors, and support for “Innovation Space” to enable organizations to develop novel approaches to increase the diversity of the student pool that enters the PhD training pathway. Eligibility is limited to those sites with less than $7.5 million of NIH research project grant funding annually and at least 25 percent of undergraduate students receiving Pell Grants.

  2. Establish the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN), which will connect students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty with experienced mentors; develop standards of good mentorship in biomedical research; and provide workshops and training opportunities in grantsmanship; as well as other activities. Grantees will engage and assemble multiple individuals and/or organizations into a single, nationwide consortium.

  3. Ensure fairness in peer review through examining the potential causes of disparate success rates (such as implicit bias), testing behavioral interventions, providing diversity awareness training for both scientific review officers and members of review panels, and piloting a program that would make grant applications completely anonymous.

  4. Increase engagement by all NIH leadership by creating a new chief diversity officer position which will be responsible for coordinating NIH initiatives aimed at enhancing the diversity of the NIH-funded workforce (both extramural and intramural) and oversee a rigorous prospective evaluation of existing NIH diversity programs. NIH is also establishing a working group on diversity to help ensure that diversity remains a core consideration of NIH governance.

As these are initial steps, Tabak was careful to address some of the challenges that remain. “It is crucially important that the committee and the stakeholders throughout biomedical research acknowledge that no one set of initiatives will diversify the workforce overnight. There is tremendous mistrust in the communities that we must engage with and we must work hard to gain their trust. Nothing that NIH can propose to do will be successful unless it is embraced by the extramural partners and biomedical research community. Most importantly, diversifying the NIH-funded workforce and ensuring the fairness of the peer review system are collective responsibilities across every institute and center because we will all benefit.”

Karen Studwell, JD is a Senior Legislative & Federal Affairs Officer in the Government Relations Office of the Science Directorate at the American Psychological Association.