Investing in the Future: National Institute of General Medical Sciences Strategic Plan for Biomedical and Behavioral Research Training 2011
Key Themes and Specific Actions
Theme IV: Diversity is an Indispensable Component of Research Training Excellence, and it Must be Advanced Across the Entire Research Enterprise
One of the problems that we hear from our students [who] go on to postdocs at majority institutions is how isolated they feel. You cannot address a diversity issue by having one African American student in your program.
—PARTICIPANT, NIGMS RESEARCH TRAINING STRATEGIC PLAN STAKEHOLDER MEETING
Studies have demonstrated that students trained in racially, ethnically and otherwise diverse academic settings in higher education acquire important skills and perspectives that enable them to identify and solve problems of societal importance.22,23,24,25 Moreover, for some time, the social science literature has pointed to the value of exchanging different perspectives, thoughts and ideas in generating productive and inventive solutions.26,27,28,29 Legal decisions have also held that “the type of diversity at the core of a compelling educational interest is a diversity of individuals—their backgrounds, cultures and life experiences—of which race and ethnicity may be only two of several determinants.”30
For many years, NIH training grant programs have required applicants to specify how their proposed programs will recruit and retain trainees from underrepresented groups.31 Yet despite these longstanding efforts from NIH and other entities across the biomedical and behavioral research landscape to increase the number of scientists from underrepresented groups, diversity across the board still falls far short of mirroring that of the U.S. population (Figure 3). This situation highlights a stark reality that historically under represented groups are now the most rapidly growing segment of the U.S. population, and thus the need for change is urgent. Equally if not more troubling is the fact that faculty minority representation is especially low, providing a scant number of role models for youth considering research careers.
Actions related to this theme underscore the need for the government and institutions to actively pursue, and monitor the impact of, a range of approaches to enhance diversity in biomedical and behavioral research.
Action: Champion and articulate the societal benefits of a diverse biomedical and behavioral research workforce that mirrors the diversity of the U.S. population. NIGMS is committed to meeting this multidimensional challenge. To achieve this goal, collaboration is essential among government, academic institutions, communities, professional societies and organizations, and the private sector.
Action: Establish and apply high standards for institutions to actively recruit, effectively mentor and diligently nurture students through the completion of their programs. NIGMS will articulate clear diversity expectations in all NIGMS-sponsored funding mechanisms, not just formal training grants. In addition to bolstering the recruitment of students from underrepresented groups, NIGMS urges institutions and their faculty to implement approaches that follow and support students throughout their research training so that trainees are competitive to enter the scientific workforce.
Action: Assure that potential trainees are evaluated in an unbiased and inclusive manner. NIGMS will examine application and review criteria that may carry unintentional bias. In turn, the Institute will assure its own ability to monitor compliance by ensuring that staff and reviewers heed special considerations for people from backgrounds currently underrepresented in biomedical and behavioral research.
Action: Encourage institutions to examine their own demographic data on trainees. NIGMS will urge institutions to examine and address any gender and racial or ethnic disparities in outcomes among predoctoral and postdoctoral trainees.
Figure 3. U.S. Demographics and the Biomedical Scientist Population.
Caption: The U.S. research workforce does not mirror U.S. diversity. Source: U.S. Cencus Bureau, NSF.
Why Diversity Matters
Diversity is a term that covers substantial ground, comprising a range of characteristics: skill set and life experiences, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, geographic origin, socioeconomic background, disability and more. Diversity and excellence are clearly linked: Several well-designed studies have concluded that increasing diversity within academic settings has beneficial effects for all students and that diversity and excellence are anything but mutually exclusive concepts.32,33,34 Moreover, specifically related to scientific innovation and problem-solving, social scientists have long observed the ability of heterogeneous groups to derive a greater number of alternatives and perspectives that lead to more complete and inventive solutions.35,36,37,38
We cannot delay any longer in assuring that the U.S. biomedical and behavioral workforce accurately resembles national demographics. Studies predict that if our country does not succeed in removing disparities in higher education, especially within science and engineering, significant negative effects on our economic security and civic development are likely to ensue.39 Legal precedent substantiates the need for all parties to move swiftly and definitively to address this imbalance.40 The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that educational benefits associated with student diversity, as related to both teaching and preparing a capable modern workforce, are compelling as a matter of law.41 Importantly, doing so must extend beyond achieving “diversity for diversity’s sake,” “racial balancing” or remedying societal discrimination.
NIGMS believes that it is essential that the United States achieves true diversity in biomedical and behavioral research. The challenge of reaching this vital goal is not simple, however, and it must be approached thoughtfully. Efforts intended to promote diversity that are either mismanaged or left unmanaged can cause misunderstanding and conflict.42,43
The task upon all of us, as partners in bio medical and behavioral research training, is timely and consequential. Academia, government, industry and local communities must continue to work together toward an innovative and diverse future of discovery.