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Enhancing diversity in our research workforce

At the end of June, NIH released a report from the Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) Working Group on Diversity in the Biomedical Research Workforce. Dr. Collins had charged the working group to provide concrete recommendations with the goal of improving the recruitment and retention of underrepresented minorities, people with disabilities and people from disadvantaged backgrounds into biomedical research careers. The Executive Summary states that the “NIH has long recognized that achieving diversity in the biomedical and biobehavioral research workforce is critical to ensuring that the best and brightest minds have the opportunity to contribute to the realization of our research goals.” Despite significant efforts over decades the biomedical research workforce does not mirror that of the US population. For example, a recent report on the effects of race and ethnicity on NIH research funding (Ginther et al., Science, Vol. 333, August 19, 2011) found that from 2000 to 2006, African American grant applicants were significantly less likely to receive NIH research funding than were Caucasian applicants. The ACD report contains a number of recommendations that NIH will be considering in the next few months.

One of the Working Group recommendations focuses on the issue of mentoring and career development, with emphasis on the fact that mentoring is particularly important for developing scientists who are from underrepresented groups. As part of their deliberations, the Working Group gathered input from the extramural community through a Request for Information (RFI). Many respondents called for an increase in the quality and number of available mentors and suggested that strengthening relationships between outside organizations would help in the development of more effective mentoring programs.

Over three decades ago, NINDS recognized the importance of mentoring and created the Neuroscience Scholars Program (NSP) to provide it. This past November we celebrated the 30th Anniversary of this innovative mentoring initiative which is supported by funding from the NINDS and administered by the Society for Neuroscience (SfN). The NSP began as a one-year award but has since evolved into a multifaceted three-year fellowship for students from underrepresented groups. This highly competitive mentoring program attracts the very best candidates at the undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral levels, offering access to valuable networking, mentoring, and professional development resources.

This NINDS investment has proven very fruitful. The NSP has helped to support more than 550 diverse trainees in neuroscience. According to an SfN survey of former NSP scholars, participants in the program have reached high achievement levels – 76 percent currently work in academia and 11 percent are full professors. A number of the scholars have been successful in competitive grant funding, with 56 reporting a cumulative total of 290 awards valued at nearly $95 million. Since the mid 1990’s, 55 percent of participants have been women; 48 percent Hispanic/Latino; 35 percent Black/African-American; 4 percent Native American; and 3 percent Pacific Islander.

A second Working Group recommendation deals with the need for career preparation and retention, often referred to as the “leaky pipeline”. They urge the creation of programs that encourage undergraduate students interested in the sciences to attend graduate school and pursue a career in biomedical research. The NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience established an initiative specifically to address this issue, the Enhancing Neuroscience Diversity through Undergraduate Research Education Experiences (ENDURE) program. ENDURE provides undergraduate training through partnerships between research-intensive institutions and institutions with a substantial enrollment of neuroscience majors from diverse groups. The purpose is to encourage and prepare the students to enter Ph.D. degree programs in the neurosciences. An annual meeting of ENDURE participants serves as a forum for students, peer mentors, training program directors, and NIH program officials to share information and establish a network to facilitate students’ future transitions to graduate programs.

These two programs are housed in the NINDS Office of Training, Career Development and Workforce Diversity. The Office has recently released a new webpage that highlights NINDS diversity training programs, mentoring resources and a “Behind the Neuroscience” section that follows the experiences of our diversity trainees who have become successful researchers in their fields. In addition to being a portal for the extramural community, the resources on this site can help to identify accomplished diverse investigators to participate in or speak at conferences or serve as panelists for review meetings.

NINDS is committed to the development of a biomedical research workforce that is representative of our nation’s diversity. Doing so secures the Institute’s ability to recruit and retain the most talented researchers available and improves the quality of the educational training environment for all researchers. A diverse workforce will also be a potent factor for clinical trials recruitment, helping us to enroll individuals from diverse backgrounds to participate in NINDS-sponsored protocols. Advancing diversity will contribute to maintaining a balanced perspective when setting NINDS research priorities, and will enhance our capacity to address health disparities.

Last updated July 10, 2012