NIH study highlights systemic diversity issues in the neuroscience research community

NIH study highlights systemic diversity issues in the neuroscience research community

Thursday, May 27, 2021


Results underscore the needs of women and members of underrepresented groups when training the next generation of neuroscientists

National Institutes of Health (NIH) officials surveyed 1,479 neuroscientists who had recently obtained a doctorate about their career views. As with earlier studies, this one found that interest in pursuing a career in academic research dropped as the scientists went through training. This was especially true for women and members of historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups and it appeared that several factors, including lifestyle considerations and a sense of alienation, contributed to this trend. The authors concluded that these factors represent strategic challenges that both NIH policy makers and institutional grantees can address to enhance diversity in neuroscience.

The survey was led by Lauren E. Ullrich, Ph.D., program director, John R. Ogawa, Ph.D., statistician, and Michelle D. Jones-London, Ph.D., chief, of the Office of Programs to Enhance Neuroscience Diversity (OPEN) at the NIH’s National Institute of the Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). The results were published in eNeuro.

Over the years, several studies have shown that scientists tend to lose interest in pursuing a career in academic research during training. This trend is amplified in women and members of underrepresented groups, who make up a smaller proportion of the scientific training community.

The NIH has placed a high priority on addressing these issues. One example is the UNITE Initiative which was established in 2020 “to identify and address structural racism within the NIH-supported and the greater scientific community” and reflects the NIH’s efforts to enhance diversity in the biomedical workforce. Other efforts, such as the Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) awards, aim to prepare graduate students and postdoctoral trainees for careers in science other than academic research.

As Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., NIH Director, recently explained: “The future of our enterprise rests on engaging highly talented researchers from all groups and preparing them to be successful. Diversity is the foundation that fuels creativity and innovation.”

In this study, the authors examined how the trends are affecting the neuroscience research community.

To do this, the officials developed a 57-question survey about interest in several different types of scientific careers and then invited thousands of neuroscientists across the U.S. to participate. Specifically, the invitations went to neuroscientists who had obtained their doctorates between 2008 and 2017; who were United States citizens or permanent residents; and who had received funding from the NINDS for their training. This resulted in 1,479 eligible responses. As the authors noted, the survey had a 36% response rate and, like most workforce surveys, does not represent a random sample, as those with more interest in the topic are more likely to respond.

The authors then analyzed and compared responses to determine the role of race and gender, career preferences, and experiences during training on the career interest of neuroscientists.

The survey showed that, across all respondents, interest in academic research decreased during training while interest in non-academic science careers rose. When asked about current career interests, those who were drawn to academic careers had a more positive view of the academic funding climate and were more interested in working independently. They were also less likely to be concerned with the balance between their work and their lives outside of the lab.                    

Interestingly, the results suggested that advisors, i.e. the established academic researchers who train new scientists, played an important role – both positively and negatively – in both change in interest over time and in current interest in academic careers.

Further analysis revealed that the level of interest in academic research was also influenced by identity, career preferences, and experiences during training. Importantly, the authors caution that differences between groups should be interpreted with care, as other research has shown that these differences likely reflect social and cultural pressures as much as individual preference.

For instance, the study found that women began their training with much less interest in academic research and their interest decreased more during training than it did for men. Women as a group reported less interest in autonomy, or independence; they had greater concerns about applying for grants and jobs; and they placed a higher priority on work-life balance.

On average, women reported poorer relationships with mentors, lower first authorship publication rates, less confidence in their ability to be an independent researcher, and a lower preference for autonomy than men. Confidence was a particularly strong factor in determining whether women from underrepresented groups were more interested in non-academic positions.

Neuroscientists from underrepresented groups retained more interest in academic teaching and became more interested in non-academic careers. Lower first authorship publication rates and a lower preference for autonomy than well-represented groups were factors in determining whether they pursued academic research. They were also less likely to feel connected to the neuroscience communities at their own institutions but felt that they received helpful guidance from faculty outside of their university.

The authors concluded that these factors represent systemic problems that prevent women and people from underrepresented groups from pursuing academic research careers in neuroscience. This is consistent with other studies that have explored factors including: issues surrounding childcare that disproportionately affect mothers in science; the greater share of “academic service” tasks that fall to marginalized faculty; hostile work environments; lack of access to professional development resources or mentorship; or even differing values, (such as  an emphasis on autonomy over collaboration). The authors recommend pursuing more programs that address these broader systemic issues, such as the NIH Common Fund’s Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation (FIRST) Program, and mentoring-focused network programs funded by the NIH Neuroscience Development for Advancing the Careers of a Diverse Research Workforce, may be a good step towards increasing diversity in neuroscience.

Article:

Ullrich, L.E., Ogawa, J.R., & Jones-London, M.D., Factors that Influence Career Choice Among Different Populations of Neuroscience Trainees. eNeuro, May 26, 2021. DOI: 10.1523/ENEURO.0163-21.2021

This study was supported by the NIH’s NINDS.

###

NINDS is the nation’s leading funder of research on the brain and nervous system. The mission of NINDS is to seek fundamental knowledge about the brain and nervous system and to use that knowledge to reduce the burden of neurological disease.

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit https://www.nih.gov