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NIH Diversity Working Group Delivers Recommendations

June 15, 2012—A high-level working group tasked to identify immediate and long-term strategies for improving the diversity of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) investigator pool delivered its June 14 recommendations to NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., and his chief advisory committee.  Reed Tuckson, M.D., co-chair of the Working Group on Diversity in the Biomedical Research Workforce, presented the group’s recommendations, flanked by most of the group’s members who attended the meeting in person.

Dr. Tuckson stated that the central objective of the NIH and the working group is “to ensure excellence in research, citing studies that participation of individuals from diverse backgrounds helps propel innovation, particularly in areas of such complexity as biomedical research and community health.  He described the working group’s efforts, meeting more than 13 times over the past nine months to analyze data on the NIH grant application and review process, to understand evidence for disparities in outcomes for some investigators by differing ethnic and social background.

Earlier research led by NIH staff and published in the journal Science last year demonstrated that, controlling for educational background and other variables, African American and other black scientists submitting research grant applications are 10 percent less likely than non-blacks to receive an award.  These findings drove Dr. Collins’ decision, announced in the same issue of Science, to establish the working group [see Washington Highlights, Sept. 2, 2011], which he charged to explore potential causes and develop strategies to improve rates of participation in research. 

In addition to the discrepancies in award rate, Dr. Tuckson noted, the number of black scientists in the investigator pool also is very small, accounting for 3.1 percent of the applications in behavioral research, 1.5 percent in applied and clinical research, and only 1 percent in basic research.

Given the constrained economic environment for all federal science and other programs, the working group recommendations are ambitious and far-reaching, ranging across all aspects of career development for minority scientists and calling for further investment by NIH.

These recommendations include strengthened mentoring and undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral preparation, and initiatives for retention and advancement of minority scientists in research positions.  Dr. Tuckson called on NIH to become an influential voice for K-12 education, a role not specifically assigned to the agency but implicit in the imperative for achieving a diverse investigator pool.

The working group recommendations would provide further support to institutions that serve minority communities, for example, historically black and minority universities and colleges. However, a small percentage of U.S. higher education institutions still produce 25 percent of all African American Ph.D. scientists.  According to the working group, these institutions long have achieved success in their social and economic missions, while working with more limited resources than many other universities.  The group also recommends creating the position of Chief Diversity Officer—a scientist— to advise the NIH Director, including diversity efforts within the NIH intramural program.

Like the Working Group on Biomedical Research Workforce, which presented at the same meeting, the Diversity Working Group recommended improving NIH data collection, including assigning unique identifiers to applicants and investigators.  The group did not find sufficient data available to address questions of unconscious or other bias in the review process, also designating this an area for further study.  Dr. Tuckson stressed that such study must not be seen to impugn the question or character of the thousands of volunteer scientists that make the review process work.

In addition to Dr. Tuckson, who also is a sitting member of the NIH Director’s Advisory Committee, other co-chairs include NIH leaders John Ruffin, Ph.D., director of NIH’s National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, and Larry Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D., NIH principal deputy director.  The working group also included Ann C. Bonham, Ph.D., AAMC chief scientific officer, and Jordan Cohen, M.D., former AAMC president.


Stephen Heinig
Director, Science Policy
Telephone: 202-828-0488


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