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 for Black scientists .
Institutional structures, policies, and cultures , 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 , 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 (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 ” 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:
- Recognize and reduce systemic and explicit bias, e.g., through bystander interventions
- Mitigate unconscious bias
- Increase cultural awareness and sensitivity when teaching and mentoring
- Emphasize cultural assets rather than deficits
- Diminish imposter phenomenon
- Reduce stereotype threat
- Eliminate micro aggressions
- Increase micro affirmations
- Support the need for a higher purpose, e.g., giving back to the community (see articles published in 2016, 2015, 2013, 2010)
- Look to organizations that have a record of producing and supporting Black scientists, such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and learn from them (see NSF data )
- Reassess evaluation metrics for entry and advancement at the trainee and faculty levels to ensure they don’t perpetuate systemic bias (e.g., 2017 , 2014 )
- Link institutional appointment and promotion criteria to demonstrated efforts to create more equitable and just training environments that supports Black trainees and students, as well as others from underrepresented groups
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.