In my last blog, I tried to present the case that a diversified workforce in biomedical research will help us achieve our mission in a faster and more comprehensive fashion. Diversity will allow higher academic achievements for all of our trainees. The evidence is so abundant that, frankly, I feel such a statement is as revolutionary as the assertion that Venice is wet! However, I also urged that no one should take this evidence for granted, as no one is immune to various kinds of bias. Indeed, these biases are likely to be latent and subliminally present inside all of us; recognizing them is the first essential step. Have you taken your Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT) test yet? If so, you may now continue to part II of this blog on diversity. Here I will discuss some very exciting ideas coming out of NIH which recently had a rude shock of its own concerning the question of institutional bias.

The shock came in a 2011 paper in Science. The lead author was Donna Ginther, Director of the Center for Economics and Science Technology at the University of Kansas, and the senior author was Raynard Kington, then NIH Principal Deputy and now President of Grinnell College [1]. Their study rocked the boat with a rigorous, scholarly analysis of the NIH peer review system that found that black applicants were significantly less likely than whites to be awarded NIH research funding. The differences were stunning; overall blacks were 13 percent less likely to receive NIH investigator-initiated research funding compared with whites. Similar but smaller gaps were also detected for Hispanics and Asians. The authors generated models that controlled for applicants’ educational background, country of origin, training, previous research awards, publication record, and employer characteristics, to find that black applicants were still 10 percent less likely to be funded than whites.

As you may imagine, the Ginther-Kington study, and a following one[2], attracted a lot of attention from scholars, some of whom came to different conclusions.[3] Fortunately, the Ginther-Kington paper also received serious attention at NIH where an ad hoc working group, led by the NIH Deputy Director Larry Tabak was set up to advise the NIH Director on this thorny matter. The group explored likely reasons behind the gap in funding rates and made some recommendations, which are now being implemented[4]. Enhancing Diversity in the NIH-Funded Workforce Program aims to strengthen institutions and faculty that are dedicated to the recruitment and retention of a scientific workforce that reflects our national diversity.[5]

The Enhanced Diversity program envisions three main initiatives: the Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD) Initiative; the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN), and a Coordination and Evaluation Center. All draw on a growing body of data that the best way to improve undergraduate science education for disadvantaged students is to engage them in year-round laboratory research, provide close mentoring, and insulate them from immediate financial pressures.

The BUILD program targets institutions that receive less than $7.5 million in NIH research project grant funding with at least 25% of the undergraduate students receiving Pell grants, a marker here for significant numbers of disadvantaged students. BUILD will also provide two years of tuition scholarships for undergrads plus rigorous mentored research for two summers during college. The program will support faculty to create an innovation space at the institutions involved. BUILD students will also be eligible for up to two years research training after graduation with deferred or forgiven loan repayments for graduate school, based on loan burden. The goal is to have ~150 new students per year in the program, for a total of ~600 students per year in the whole program. The RFA soliciting applications for BUILD program planning grant is now available, and can be found in the NIH Guide.[6]

Mentoring is the key element in NRMN. The idea is to augment local mentoring efforts for undergraduate students by linking junior faculty members into a single, nationwide consortium with scientific leaders drawn from a range of biomedical and behavioral/social science disciplines who are willing to serve as external mentors. This would be done both in person and via webinars plus other electronic communications. NRMN will work closely with campus mentors for BUILD students but these faculty members will be free to extend their services to students, fellows, and faculty outside the initiative. NRMN also expects to leverage existing mentoring resources and expertise at research institutions and from professional societies such as ASCB.

Evaluation is essential to the Enhancing Diversity program. Both NRMN and BUILD will work with a Coordination and Evaluation Center to ensure appropriate coordination with these and other NIH diversity programs. NIH promises rigorous assessments of whether Enhanced Diversity is delivering on its mandate for transformative change.

These new programs will be funded by the NIH Common Fund, a pool of money in the Office of the NIH Director to foster projects that cannot be carried out by a single institute. Common Fund projects are always innovative and span the domains of many NIH Institutes and Centers. I have learned that the Enhanced Diversity programs will be administered by the newly formed National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD). This seems logical but ASCB also wants to underscore the strong track record of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) in training programs, and in particular in minority training. ASCB President Don Cleveland and Minority Affairs Committee chair Renato Aguilera have just sent a letter to NIH Director Francis Collins, urging that the expertise of NIGMS in this arena be leveraged through close cooperation with NIMHD.

ASCB has deliberately thrust its nose into this new NIH initiative because our Society has a well-deserved reputation for being pushy on this issue. For decades, ASCB has been the overachiever among scientific societies in campaigning for a scientific workforce open to all. Long ago, ASCB rejected the idea that gender, race, or economic background should set limits on young scientific minds. The different faces you see today in our labs (and running them) is living proof that diversity makes us all better scientists. And yet we too were shocked by the Ginther-Kington findings. Clearly we all need to do more to make science open to all talents. As working scientists, we know that there is no magic “diversity” wand here, only a strong hypothesis, good data, and the long haul. Let’s get to work.

  1. Ginther, D.K., et al., Race, ethnicity, and NIH research awards. Science. 333(6045): p. 1015-9.
  2. Ginther, D.K., et al., Are race, ethnicity, and medical school affiliation associated with NIH R01 type 1 award probability for physician investigators? Acad Med. 87(11): p. 1516-24.
  3. Yang, J., et al., A bibliometric analysis of academic publication of NIH funding. Journal of Infometrics, 2013. 7: p. 318-324.
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Stefano Bertuzzi

Dr. Stefano Bertuzzi is the Executive Director of the American Society for Cell Biology. In this position he is responsible, with the ASCB Board, for strategic planning and all operations at the Society to serve the needs of its ~9,000 members and to promote the field of cellular biology and basic science. Email:

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