Advancing the Science Through a Strengthened Commitment to Diversity – Starting Now

Recently, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins announced his intention to accept speaking invitations at meetings and conferences only if meeting organizers have taken diversity and inclusiveness seriously in selecting  speakers and developing the agenda. I applaud this move and am answering his challenge by making the same commitment. Starting now, I will only give presentations at conferences where a diverse range of individuals – including women, minorities, and persons with disabilities – are appropriately included in panels or other prominent speaking slots. Enhancing diversity in the neuroscience and biomedical research workforce is critical towards realizing our research goals, at NINDS and NIH as a whole.

One of my favorite things about being the Director of NINDS has been engaging with researchers, clinicians, and patients at scientific meetings. I enjoy talking about the work we do at NINDS and learning from the diverse perspectives that many smart people in the community bring to the field. Not only is this diversity important for representation, it is necessary to make the science better. I am excited that this community is growing to be more inclusive and representative, and I have been pleased to participate in many conferences committed to including underrepresented groups. But there have been times when I’ve looked around the room and realized that a lot of these folks look a lot like me. I know we can do better.

NINDS has expected diversity and inclusion in our conference grants for some time. NINDS has actively enforced the language in the R13 program announcement – the mechanism providing this conference support – to ensure that appropriate representation plans are developed and adhered to. We also provide a lengthy list of organizations and programs that can be helpful in reaching out to underrepresented groups. I encourage all conference organizers to use these resources to broaden the speaker pool at their meetings. A variety of viewpoints and innovative ideas enriches scientific discussion and ensures that meetings don’t simply become an echo chamber of people who think alike.

As for my own speaking engagements, I will consider each invitation on a case-by-case basis. I expect that strong evidence will be provided to show the organizer’s commitment to diversity for the panel or session to which I am invited, and for the overall meeting. I am not looking for platitudes, and if such evidence is not clear at least one month prior to the meeting, I will decline the invitation and suggest potential alternatives to take my place who represent more diverse viewpoints.

The work we do together to seek fundamental knowledge about the brain and nervous system and to reduce the burden of neurological disease is made stronger by a workforce that is diverse and representative of our current society. Improving representation at meetings and conferences, especially in speaking roles, is one way we can work to address biases and barriers that have limited the inclusion of underrepresented groups in the scientific workforce and leadership for far too long. This small step is one that pushes us towards progress, and I hope and encourage others to make the same commitment.