What Can We Do to Combat Anti-Black Racism in the Biomedical Research Enterprise?

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The recent deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, in addition to the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 on African Americans, are wrenching reminders of the many harms that societal racism, inequality, and injustice inflict on the Black community. These injustices are rooted in centuries of oppression—including slavery and Jim Crow, redlining, school segregation, and mass incarceration—that continue to influence American life, including the biomedical research enterprise. Despite leading an NIH Institute whose mission includes building a diverse scientific workforce, at NIGMS we’ve struggled with what an adequate response to this moment would be, knowing that the systems that mediate the distinct and disparate burdens Black students, postdocs, and scientists face are complex and often aren’t easily moved with the urgency that they demand. With that in mind, below we share thoughts on what each of us who is in the majority or in a position of power can do to help break the cycles of racial disparities that are woven into the fabric of the biomedical research enterprise and that limit opportunities Link to external web site for Black scientists Link to external web site.

Institutional structures, policies, and cultures Link to external web site, including those in the biomedical research enterprise, all contribute to racial inequality and injustice. This fact was laid bare for us by the responses to the request for information (RFI) we issued in 2018 on strategies to enhance successful postdoctoral career transitions to promote faculty diversity. Respondents cited bias and discrimination—including racism—most frequently as a key barrier to postdoctoral researchers attaining independent faculty positions.

In the words of one response from the postdoctoral association at a well-known NIH-funded institution:

“A major barrier that underrepresented minority scientists face is discrimination and harassment. As postdocs at [major research university], many of us have witnessed or have been the target of numerous forms of discrimination and harassment ranging from the covert (e.g. microaggressions and implicit bias) to the overt (e.g. hate speech, isolation, and intimidation). Examples include having inappropriate and hurtful comments about our intelligence, race, ethnicity, religion, and national origin directed at us and our peers; being scrutinized more harshly by our peers and advisors based on our race and/or appearance; consistently being ignored or talked over during meetings; having our contributions and accomplishments undermined, devalued or overlooked entirely; being isolated within laboratories such that colleagues neither acknowledge us nor respond to formal requests for research materials or information; having our access to reagents and equipment restricted by colleagues; and, being stopped and questioned by campus/city police while going about our university business. Even when witnessed by our supervisors, most of these incidents were overlooked, which served to increase our sense of isolation and not belonging. The effect of such a hostile work environment is detrimental to underrepresented minority scientists’ research productivity and a severe mental health burden. This is compounded by the fact that underrepresented minority scientists will most likely continue to face hostility and isolation as they advance through the faculty ranks. Together, the reality of a hostile work environment coupled with the prospect of future hostile work environments at the faculty level saps underrepresented minority scientists of their energy, creativity, and resolve to pursue a career in academia.”

Another respondent, who identified as a Black woman and postdoc, noted:

“It feels strange to hear people say “we don’t have enough Black faculty” and I’ll be sitting here talking to other Black colleagues about how we are running out of grant funding or are underpaid and we’re trying to get faculty positions and not having any luck…I read all these articles online and see all these people saying they do diversity work for the university, and then I still see me and the other Black staff scientists (many of whom hold PhDs from ivy leagues schools) and we are just sitting here unsure of how to find our way into a faculty position. If diversity in academia is such a problem, why doesn’t anyone look under their nose and see that we are right here and try to give us a leg up?”

What Is NIGMS Doing?

We at NIGMS are committed to using every strategy we can to enable and incentivize institutions to develop structures, policies, and cultures that are inclusive, safe, and supportive of all community members, including those from groups that have historically been and continue to be subject to racial discrimination, such as African Americans. For example, we recently launched the Maximizing Opportunities for Scientific and Academic Independent Careers (MOSAIC) program to enhance diversity within the academic biomedical research workforce. We hope the program will help address the significant underrepresentation of Black (as well as Latinx and Indigenous) faculty in the professoriate Link to external web site, and we have been encouraged by the fact that over half of the applicants to the first round of the MOSAIC K99s were Black/African American.

Additionally, we completely reworked the expectations for all of our training programs, incorporating strong emphasis on the creation of safe, supportive, and inclusive institutional cultures; enhancing faculty and student diversity; and training culturally competent mentors. Institutional change in these areas is necessary because diversity, equity, and inclusion are not just about fairness, they are integral to excellence in research and research training. Reviewers are carefully considering these criteria when evaluating training grant applications, and programs that are making strong progress in these areas are doing well, whereas programs that are not focusing on them are not. These review outcomes have been and will continue to be reflected in our funding decisions. To monitor progress and be fully transparent, we are working on a report showing the demographic data for NIGMS-supported trainees over time and intend to update and release the information annually.

We have also been carefully monitoring the applicant and awardee demographics in our Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) program to look for and try to mitigate any signs of potential bias. Thus far, for the early-stage investigator MIRA program, applicants from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups are getting funded at the same rates as those from well-represented groups, although this is not yet true of the established investigator program. In partnership with the Center for Scientific Review and the NIH Office of Scientific Workforce Diversity, we will be piloting bias awareness training for reviewers, scientific review officers, and program officers involved in review and funding recommendations for the established and early-stage investigator MIRA programs.

However, we recognize that these steps will not be enough on their own to reverse the decades of discrimination and inequity in the biomedical research enterprise. As with the rest of NIH, Black scientists represented around 1% of NIGMS R01/R35 investigator pool in FY 2019. With the community’s help, we will redouble our efforts to find additional strategies to advance the careers of Black students and scientists.

What Can Those of Us in the Majority Do?

At an individual level, those of us who have not truly acknowledged the gravity of the situation in the biomedical research workforce must recognize that there is a very real problem that needs to be solved. We must educate ourselves using the many resources available, including university Africana studies departments and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture Link to external web site (NMAAHC). We must carefully listen to the experiences and views of our Black trainees and faculty, such as those expressed above in the responses to the RFI. These conversations can be facilitated through the NMAAHC’s “Talking About Race Link to external web site” website. And then we must use what we learn as the basis for making positive change at our institutions. 

Researchers who study bias and discrimination have pointed to some of the following actions for creating environments in which Black students and scientists can thrive:

We at NIGMS and the organizations and researchers we support must use this information to continually improve the institutions in which we work and make them safe, inclusive, and supportive scientific and training environments for Black students and researchers, as well as for students and researchers from all backgrounds. For example, anyone with concerns that harassment is affecting an NIH funded project at a grantee institution should submit information regarding the situation through the anonymous reporting portal.

We encourage you to also get involved in diversity-enhancing programs such as those supported by NIGMS. If your institution does not have such a program, consider taking the lead in starting one. If you want guidance on how to do this, please contact one of the program directors in our Divisions of Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity or Research Capacity Building. Finally, for principal investigators on NIH research grants, consider applying for diversity supplements to enhance the diversity—and scientific strength—of your laboratory.

Our commitment to a diverse workforce can’t be realized until our Black students, postdocs, and colleagues have the same opportunities to enter and advance within the biomedical research community as anyone else. Eliminating biases of all kinds—scientific, institutional, regional, gender, and racial—is essential to the continued strength of the biomedical research enterprise in our country. At NIGMS we are committed to doing everything we can to achieve this goal.

We recognize this is a limited list of ideas and welcome your comments.

20 Replies to “What Can We Do to Combat Anti-Black Racism in the Biomedical Research Enterprise?”

  1. Please push the NIH to institute discussion of bias and implicit bias training at the start of study section as the NSF has already adopted. This should already be in place and there must be no further delay in adopting established best practices.

    1. Related question: Does NIH use a metric of some sort to mitigate bias in scoring? Would love to learn more.

    2. Thank you for your comment. We agree that bias training is needed and we’re piloting such a program right now. The Center for Scientific Review collaborated with NIGMS and the NIH Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity, Dr. Hannah Valantine, to develop bias awareness training. We considered approaches taken at other agencies, including NSF’s strategy of reading a statement at the beginning of review meetings. In consultation with Dr. Valantine and her staff, we decided to pursue a more in-depth approach and develop training modules for scientific review officers, for reviewers, and for program staff as each of these groups play critical roles in peer review and funding decisions. This training is being piloted in three study sections this month. We will adjust the training based on this experience and plan to roll out the training for all CSR reviews in 2021. If you are interested in other steps CSR is taking to combat systemic racial disparities, please see our recent blog post.

  2. This is a solid start. Could we hear more about how NIGMS and NIH will work to address the differences in funding rates of black and white applicants?

  3. Dear Jon, Alison, and Kenneth,

    Thank you for your effort and to expose this issue of racial inequality in the scientific community. I believe the NIGMS could help develop a program of “minority role models” that will interact with students (K-12 as well as undergraduates), general populations, and academic institutions so we can start changing that image of successful scientist as white and male. I think is our responsibility to show to the general population that black, latinos, and other ethnicities can be successful in the biomedical sciences and that there is a need now more than ever for new ideas and points of views.

    As a latino professor I will be more than happy to help you with this endeavor.

    Best,

    Ivan Martinez
    Associate Professor
    West Virginia University

    1. NIGMS’ Science Education Partnership Awards (SEPA) support pre-K to grade 12 projects aimed at developing a more diverse biomedical workforce. Many SEPA projects focus in part or fully on the use of role models to link students with mentors and the reality of careers in a range of health fields. To learn more about these projects visit the SEPA website.

  4. I am afraid this is not going to resonate. The scientific community (in hard sciences) has long been color blind enough to presently have a very substantial admixture of East Asians, Indians, Eastern Europeans and other “suppressed” groups. I am one of them. We are only willing to offer the following advice: “I could have done it, so can you”.

    1. I’m saddened by the comments of the anonymous commentor (1:41 pm). You speak as a “hard scientist”. Please take some time to look at the broad array of data that reveals the effects of systematic racism in the nation as a whole and in science–many links are provided in the NIGMS post. Logon to Twitter and listen to the stories of our black colleagues #blackintheivory. Take time to listen to some black voices. I think your heart and mind will change.

    2. Further. We did it in spite of:
      – Language barriers.
      – Foreign-sounding names.
      – More often than not coming from countries that spend less per student than schools in U.S. inner cities do.
      – Limited U.S. network.

      What helped us:
      Fundamentally, hard science is meritocratic. Present opportunities are built on prior achievements, and (hopefully) these things amplify each other in iterative cycles throughout our careers, right?

      So, this is what helps most: our peers don’t have reasons to doubt that our achievements are genuine, that they are not inflated or outright falsified in the name of “having [put your favorite ethnicity here] in our faculty ranks”.

      1. Meritocracy assumes that you have access. Most black scientists are given the same opportunities to collaborate or be involved in projects that lead to the same scientific merits as our peers. And there are so few of us in our environments that we don’t have the ability to formulate our own collaborations that lead to substantive science. Also, there has been plenty of research that shows that scientific questions that address health concerns of more diverse populations aren’t seen as having the same significance/impact during review. So you may have the body of work but it is discounted. This is a much more complicated conversation than what you realize. Science is more like a caste system: if you don’t come from the right school, lab, etc. you’re not going to get the same opportunities.

        1. “Science is more like a caste system: if you don’t come from the right school, lab, etc. you’re not going to get the same opportunities.”

          If you would like to combat this by advocating e.g. blind peer review, I am an ally.

      2. I will not name any group (because this comment will not published) but it is an open secret that member of study section from certain ethnic groups automatically favor applicants from that ethnic group. When certain ethnic groups are make up as much as 1/3rd of a study section and those 1/3rd advocates for an applicant in unison results will deviate from the meritocracy all the way to infinity. I bet dollar for donuts that this PIs hails from one such ethnic groups. This is the dirty secret of success some of those PI with countries that spend less per student than US inner cities. Ironically, many black and Latino/a PIs hail from those very inner cities.

  5. NIH peer review system is equivalent to an election system with open balloting and secret counting. Reviewer’s have no accountability and most SRO’s are just interested in getting the meeting done. I have not been able to get an SRO to remove a reviewer that committed outright fraud.
    As bad as bias against black PIs is, there are times that reviewer would not know PI is black, especially if the name is not a give away. In reality the true bias is even worse.
    There are other applicants, such as those of middle-eastern decent whose names are instant give-away. That creates a field-day for Islamophobic reviewers, never mind that most Americans of middle-eastern origin are not even Muslims. To the best of my knowledge NIH categories North African and Middle-eastern applicants as white which helps cover up blatant Islamophobia while reducing apparent success rates for true white applicants. Once PIs of north African and middle-eastern origins are removed from the mix of whites, success rate for white applicants will be much higher while the blatant discrimination due to Islamophobia will become plainly evident.
    If NIH wants real reform, it should change the system to secret balloting and open counting. Let applicant be anonymous to reviewers while reviewers’ identity is in the open. There is almost no correlation between “applicant and environment” criterion and overall scores. Those two criteria are scored badly only when reviewer is biased against applicant. Apparently there are accomplished “scientists” on study section roosters who think environment at Harvard is 5, 6, or even 7. Go figure.

  6. I thanks NIGMS for offering these ideas. We all can do better, and our trainees are begging us to. First of all, we have found we need to communicate what we ARE doing to them, and then stick by our promises.
    As for the comments above about “meritocracy” and ability to succeed: I respectfully disagree with the writer: he has NOT had to deal with the automatic assumption that he could NOT do it which many of our African American and Latinex trainees experience.

    1. I am respectfully reminding that as a foreign-born and educated scientist I am dealing with more barriers than “underrepresented minorities” face. Except one:

      ” he has NOT had to deal with the automatic assumption that he could NOT do it which many of our African American and Latinex trainees experience.”

      Bingo. Indeed. This is what affirmative action do-gooders have done to Black and Latino people: now others automatically doubt their abilities and achievements.

  7. I am encouraged to see commitment to improving access to under-represented groups.

    When I started as a study section panelist, I was disturbed by the bias in the system, including the cachet attached to famous names when their proposals should need to prove their worth like anybody else’s. And I routinely see deference to those names, sometimes for proposals that should not be competitive. I had myself been subjected to reciprocal review.

    So I began implementing my own “blind review.” I operate so that I have only a last name in hand and funding vehicle (e.g. R01, R15, etc) when I sit down to read the Aims and Research Strategy. Only after I have assessed the merits of the scientific proposal – and written down all of my comments in a Word document – do I turn to the biosketch, institution, equipment etc documents to determine whether they support the feasibility of the plan I had already evaluated. Those details should not alter my assessment of the merits of the scientific proposal. Later, I started using a number instead of the last name.

    Obviously this approach is not truly blind. In some cases I know of the PI’s work, since it is cited in the proposal. But I find that this approach functions remarkably well to dissociate me from the identity of the applicant. I do not believe there is a way to make review perfectly anonymous, but one can improve the process to diminish bias. And it behooves us to do better on this point and many others.

    1. This is an excellent idea and one I have adopted recently for faculty recruitment (credit to Needhi Bhalla (for her article in MBoC on improving diversity in hiring) and Sandy Schmid (who is quoted therein). Reading the future research plan before cover letter and CV works very well and widely used systems like interfolio can be used to deliver materials in a prescribed way – leading to a staged “reveal” rather than truly double blind, which likely will never be feasible. The “halo effect” is likely a big source of inequity, as you note.

  8. I think harassment happens to many of us in science irrespective of race and ethnicity. I was in the lab where Chinese, American, Eastern European postdocs were all equally mistreated. It depends a lot on the PI and the way Universities run their research programs. No doubt African Americans face a lot of difficulties in academia but so do many of us international scientists. I don’t think the system is specifically biased against people of color, at least at Stanford University where I worked. Stanford was so obsessed about promoting diversity, especially among Black and Latino communities, but turned a blind to a systemic harassment towards every other nationality in its labs.

  9. The article by Adam Harris at The Atlantic pointed out undergraduate student debt as a barrier to black students pursuing a doctoral degree. NIGMS should consider a Loan Repayment Program for such students similar to those developed to entice clinical researchers. If the initial application could be coupled with graduate school applications, it could make a difference.

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