Skip Over Navigation Links

Promoting Diversity in Research: Championing an Inclusive Scientific Workforce

Excerpt from presentation to the Thirty-Second Annual Conference on Shock

Note:  Since this presentation in 2009, the NIH has revised the diversity requirement for institutional training grants: predoctoral and postdoctoral training grants no longer require a plan or outcomes for recruitment of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. These training grants still have a requirement for recruitment of students from ethnic and racial minorities underrepresented in the biomedical sciences, and for students with disabilities.

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:

  1. Identify the problem, and
  2. Discuss practical solutions [Note that the solutions are not meant to be 'best practices' or a checklist of what we can go through, do, and somehow expect to magically have a diverse scientific workforce. Best practices will not work for one simple reason -- we are not in homozygous environments, so no two interventions will work at all loci. (Best practices and checklists are great when the plumber comes to fix a broken sink; here experimental procedures are not warranted!)]

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)].

Disparity of Science Representation figure showing URM National demographics under 30% compared to Caucasian demographics represented at 70%.

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:

  • Racial/Ethnic Minorities (African Americans, American Indians and Alaska Natives, Hispanic/Latino Americans, and U.S. Pacific Islanders), which have a longstanding history of underrepresentation and continuing efforts,
  • Students with disabilities (defined as those with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities), and
  • Students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds

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:

  1. As individuals, we can take on a leadership role in the diversity debate. We can 'lead from below' until the 'tone at the top' of our institutions/organizations is as committed as we are to rectify the diversity problem. We know that everyone will not be compelled to work on this issue with us, and that's okay. When asked, most people say they feel diversity is the right thing to do, so let's be the leaders on our respective campuses and allow others to follow. A tangible way to achieve this is to organize campus-wide discussions regarding diversity issues.
  2. Participate in the Diversity Supplements and other student development programs, such as the Bridges, IMSD, MARC, or PREP programs supported by the MORE Division at NIGMS that focus on training science students from underrepresented backgrounds.
  3. Attend national science student conferences such as the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) (http://www.abrcms.org Link to external Web site) or the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos & Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) (http://www.sacnas.org/ Link to external Web site) to recruit underrepresented science students to your institution.
  4. Establish partnerships (formally or informally) with academic institutions where there's a high concentration of underrepresented students; such as Historically Black Colleges and University (HBCUs); Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs); Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs); and Tribal Colleges (for details on these institutions visit the Department of Education Web site (http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/edlite-minorityinst.html Link to external Web site), Appalachian Colleges (in which there is an association of 37 schools who serve students from the Central Appalachian region, mostly rural areas, visit http://www.acaweb.org Link to external Web site for details); Gallaudet University (http://www.gallaudet.edu/ Link to external Web site for deaf and hard-of-hearing undergraduate students), etc. The partnerships can be used to both recruit students to your programs, but also as a means for you to be directly involved with preparing students for your programs. You could give seminars on these campuses to address just what it takes for students to be competitive to enter your program (e.g., telling them and their faculty that taking Calculus in the senior year of college, instead of earlier during the student's undergraduate tenure, would not make a student competitive, etc.)
  5. Establish partnerships with local organizations where underrepresented groups are prevalent and hold health/science fairs (at local churches, barber shops, Hispanic radio, etc.). These efforts go a long way to help regain trust by many Americans of our medical research community.
  6. Specifically for students with disabilities several ideas come to mind: i) contact the Office of Disability Services on your own campus and ask officials for advice ii) Go on-line and Google "recruit student disabilities" and tons of information will come up. I did this and found one source called Mobility International USA (http://www.miusa.org/about) that specifically describes ways to recruit disabled students.
  7. Specifically for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds the American Chemical Society offers a summer research program for eligible students called Project SEED (Summer Experiences for the Economically Disadvantaged); contact them (http://www.shodor.org/ssep/prl/seed.html Link to external Web site) to promote our programs.
  8. Ensure that our Web sites, brochures, and other marketing materials have welcoming and inclusive language. Do we include people from diverse backgrounds with quotes and/or stories from them on such materials? How about instead of saying the standard language that "Persons with disabilities are welcome to apply" we should use more welcoming tones such as "People with disabilities are valued members of our institution." In order to reach out to others, we must first look inward and ask ourselves …What is our message? Is our program/institution welcoming? Is our program/institution accommodating? What's our track record? Who is delivering our message? Have we put ourselves in the inquiring student's place?
  9. Update our business cards to include Braille. A Braille embosser can state the name of our institution, Web site, and phone numbers on the back of our standard business cards. We have done this at NIGMS and here is my business card as an example.
  10. Publish our findings on diversity issues to disseminate information to others (like we do for our scientific findings); describe approaches and conclusions we have found regarding issues of diversity on our campuses. Two recommended journals are: a) Inside Higher ED (http://www.insidehighered.com/home Link to external Web site), which is an "online source for news, opinion, and jobs for all of higher education;" and b) Diverse Issues in Higher Education (formerly Black Issues In Higher Education) (http://diverseeducation.com Link to external Web site) where "leaders from academe, industry and public policy have all come to rely on this award-winning news magazine to stay abreast of the trends and issues…"

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 December 30, 2015