June 7, 2009
Presented by Shawn R. Drew, Ph.D.
Thank you for the kind invitation; I'm happy to speak with members of the Shock Society today about "Promoting Diversity in Research: Championing an Inclusive Scientific Workforce." We will hopefully have a lively discussion that is engaging, so feel free to raise questions or provide comments as we go along. And at the end of this message let's work together and discuss ways to improve diversity in biomedical research.
Before we begin, let me state two disclaimers: i) I am not an expert in diversity or issues of inclusion. I am a scientist (my PhD is in biology and not Multiculturalism, Africana Studies, or even Education), so what I offer is a desire to foster a diverse and inclusive scientific workforce representative of the U.S. citizenry and ii) I want to point out that our topic, diversity, can be a difficult conversation since it teeters on issues of race, gender, class, etc. and we strive not to offend others. So there is a tendency not to discuss this issue. However, we must go ahead with our diversity discussion because the topic is too important not to. In our quest for knowledge/ understanding we may inadvertently say something that's inappropriate; let's simply forgive each other's faux pas and move the discussion forward. A candid and open dialogue is required if we are to affect positive change. I hope we leave here today empowered to go out and champion diversity issues on our local campuses. I want share with you the thoughts, ideas, and concepts I have concerning diversity and equally as well I want to learn of your insights, ideas, opinions, and activities.
Now with that said, let me state the two-fold intent of this message; it is to:
What is diversity? In the medical sciences, it is using interdisciplinary fields such as biology, math, psychology, chemistry, physics, engineering, computer science, etc. to solve complex biomedical problems. This is how scientific research is conducted and increasingly taught today. Diversity is also the whole array of human characteristics among us that can shape our experience, including, but not limited to race/ethnicity, gender, culture, disability, socioeconomic background, age, religion, and language.
Now that we have defined diversity; let's look at a current problem with it, and that is the lack of diversity in today's scientific workforce. Minorities who are underrepresented in the biomedical sciences are: African Americans, American Indians and Alaska Natives, Hispanic/Latino Americans, and U.S. Pacific Islanders. Collectively these groups are called underrepresented minorities (URMs). [Note: Asian Americans, while also considered a minority group since they represent only ~ 4% of the US population, are not underrepresented in the biomedical/behavioral sciences (~14% representation)].
Figure 1: Source - NSF Webcasper
There is a disparity in the representation of URMs versus Caucasians in the sciences (figure 1). URM totals decrease from their national representation levels of roughly 26% of the US demographic to just ~4% of the NIH R01 biomedical research grant holders. This same downward trajectory does not hold for Caucasians; whose representation is at parity at all noted levels. The underrepresentation in the sciences we see for URMs holds true for students with disabilities as they are 11% of the science BS degree holders but only 1% of the population with science PhD degrees. The NIH is particularly interested in the following groups to achieve a diverse scientific workforce:
The NIH requires a plan to recruit and retain individuals from the aforementioned groups on the predoctoral and postdoctoral institutional research training (T32) grants (http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/pa-files/PA-08-226.html). At NIGMS we take a very serious look at these plans (for new applicants and competing renewals) and their outcomes (for competing renewals). The plans to enhance diversity are first considered by the initial review group (IRG), then by Council, and lastly by an administrative staff committee. Unacceptable diversity plans are barred from funding, regardless of the priority score. An updated plan that's acceptable is required for funding. For Commendable ratings (based on outcomes) NIGMS may add slot(s) to a training program.
Perhaps you have participated in the Diversity Supplement program (formerly known as Minority Supplement program; /Research/Mechanisms/pages/PromoteDiversity.aspx) where a NIH Institute or Center (IC) supplements an existing NIH research grant to support an underrepresented student or postdoctoral fellow to work in your lab. Each NIH IC, much like your academic departments, has different ways for program implementation and at NIGMS we allow more than one student or postdoctoral fellow per NIGMS grantee for the Diversity Supplement program, so PIs may bring multiple underrepresented participants into their labs. Also unique to NIGMS is the fact that beyond the college level we expect PIs to state how they will foster the transition of their underrepresented graduate student or postdoctoral fellow over to traditional funds (e.g., put on the mentor's R01, supported by a T32 grant, or receive an individual F31 or F32 award, etc.). The Diversity Supplement program is thought as a hand up not a hand out or entitlement, so NIGMS' expectation of mentors is to aid in the transition of their trainees to mainstream training mechanisms; the PIs responsibility is to train 'diverse' students so they are as competitive as everyone else.
Does it really matter who is doing science as long as good science is done? Well, yes it does. Research shows that diverse teams are better at solving complex problems. Why? Because on homogeneous teams, unquestioned assumptions remain unquestioned, and everyone gets stuck in the same place. If we listen only to people who agree with us, we cease to grow. In the words of American writer Walter Lippmann, "when we all think alike, no one has to think at all." Representation does not mean mere numbers or even a quota. Rather it means having qualified individuals from various backgrounds, perspectives, and influences to strengthen our ability to solve complex scientific problems. Therefore diversity is not just a feel good issue or simply the right thing to do--it benefits all through improved outcomes. And as scientific researchers we are better able to relate to the general public when our scientific workforce has adequate representation. Remember the Tuskegee syphilis experiment and the 40 years of unethical treatment on African American men that has left a lasting legacy of distrust of the medical/research community by many. Medical research requires human subjects, but we all know the complexities in getting various groups, in particular African Americans to participate in clinical trials due to past discrimination. Further, 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 need to study, there can be rampant mistrust and/or an under appreciation of certain cultural value systems.
Now that we have identified the problem – the current state of underrepresentation in the scientific workforce – let's talk about ways to address the issue. As stated earlier these ideas, while practical solutions, are not meant to be a "best practices" or a checklist but rather some resources we can use and/or ideas we can think about to apply to the specific needs of our institutions. Ready? Here we go:
Finally, let me end by reading part of an excerpt that my supervisor, Dr. Clif Poodry, director MORE Division previously presented:
"Who are you? How do you characterize yourself? If you were hired or admitted to a program because you are a good scientist who has made or is capable of making important contributions as a scholar, might you be likely to emphasize and want to continue your scholarship? But suppose that what people seem to notice and value most about you is your gender, disability, or ethnicity? What if in their quest to celebrate diversity, people seem to value your presence more than your contributions? What if they turn to you for comment or advice on diversity issues but not on your scientific expertise? Would you be known as a scientist or emerging scientist who happens to be minority and not a minority scientist?" (Or a person in a wheelchair/ not a disabled scientist). Think about this as we lead the diversity debate on our campuses.
Are there any questions before we discuss other ways we can impact representation in the sciences; I'd like to hear your thoughts and suggestions. THANK YOU.
This page last reviewed on
12/30/2015 1:35 PM
Connect With Us: