Promoting diversity and advancing racial equity in the biomedical sciences

The need for science to enhance the participation of students and faculty from historically underrepresented minority (URM) backgrounds, and the glacial progress our community has made to remedy our historic and present day exclusion, have been chronicled for longer than I have been alive.  As a Black man who has been involved in the scientific research community for over 20 years, I am exhausted and frustrated that despite countless statements describing a “commitment to diversity,” progress for URM scientists remains slow. I lament the harms I have seen the scientific enterprise inflict on my friends and mentees (often women from the Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities), all the suffering they have experienced, and the discoveries we have lost as a result. Yet I know that at this moment when national attention is focused on racial inequality, we can in fact make substantive progress on the pressing issues of diversity and racial justice in science if there is the will to do so.

Here, I share thoughts that build from my life in research, my talk at the 2019 ASCB|EMBO Meeting, and a recent statement I contributed to on how to address racism within our system.

Diversity: Why It’s Not Enough

While diversity is important for producing the highest quality science, it’s not enough. The point of promoting diversity isn’t simply to have differently colored bodies coexisting in the lab, but to ensure everyone can show up and contribute as their full selves. Without a culture of inclusion and equity, diversity can represent another form of oppression and exclusion. Without broader culture change within our discipline, we’ll likely continue to see:

Promoting diversity without committing to racial justice reinforces the social hierarchies that have marred our society and enterprise for centuries, directly harming scientists from URM and other minority groups, and impairing our entire system, which loses out on their contributions.

How We Move Forward: Listen, Acknowledge, and Act

To move forward, the scientific community—especially those who are in positions of power—must listen to those who’ve lived with systemic and racial inequity, acknowledge where we are and how we got here (including our own roles in perpetuating inequity), and then act to make things better.

Listening means:

  • Taking the time to understand the well-documented ways in which racism and other forms of bias infect our enterprise, and the emotional toll they inflict
  • Providing the space for URM trainees and colleagues to share their experiences with racism (while also recognizing their agency to choose not to relive potentially traumatizing experiences) and what they want from their institutions and colleagues
  • Consulting with and learning from the expertise of our social scientist and educational research colleagues who’ve developed robust tools for understanding human and organizational psychology that can equip us on our journey toward progress

Importantly, listening must be done to learn, not to defend ourselves or the perceived meritocracy of our institutions.

Acknowledging means:

  • Clearly describing where the scientific community stands with respect to racial equity
  • Recognizing the multifaceted forms of racism (beyond implicit bias) that we’ve allowed to exist in the research community
  • Coming to terms with the realities such as the ones that I experienced as a graduate student, where there were fewer tenured Black faculty in the basic sciences at my institution (i.e., zero) than there were Black U.S. presidents (i.e., one), and what it means that our community has allowed this reality to continue for so long at the “elite” institutions that seed the next generation of scientific leaders
  • Interrogating the unique manners in which racism and sexism intersect to harm Black, Latina, and Indigenous women in science.

Listening and acknowledging, especially as it relates to matters of race, can be hard, but it’s necessary to lean into the discomfort if we want science to be better. When we realize that we—through action or inaction—have failed, and that these failures have harmed those around us, we have a choice. We can lean into these hard truths and do the work of repair, or we can continue to deny the harms we’ve caused, which only metastasizes them. My faith tradition reminds me that acknowledgment—not denial—of wrongdoing begins the path to healing.

Finally, we must act. Talk and internal feelings alone do not bring change. Resource allocation and policy do. At the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), this has meant reworking the expectations and review criteria for our institutional training programs. All our funding announcements now have a strong emphasis on creating safe, supportive, and inclusive institutional cultures; enhancing faculty and student diversity; and training culturally competent mentors. Additionally, NIGMS has also allocated new funding to the Maximizing Opportunities for Scientific and Academic Independent Careers (MOSAIC) program to enhance diversity within the academic biomedical research workforce. Early results are promising; the MOSAIC mechanism is providing an on-ramp for early career scientists (e.g., URM postdocs) that our general career development programs have failed to attract.

When acting locally, we must carefully consider the context and available resources, and then make changes to address the specific challenges in the environment. Specificity is key. Generalized solutions for scientists with identities other than those that have been dominant (e.g., White, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle class, and male) won’t advance racial equity or inclusion within our system. More effective solutions can mean, for example, adapting models to promote success for URM students, or redesigning the faculty hiring and advancement processes to build and equitably evaluate a diverse applicant and faculty pool. As we act, we should collect data to assess whether our initiatives are achieving their goals. Continual action will be necessary, which means guarding the hard-earned gains we’ve made while continuing to develop new strategies to ensure our system becomes what it can and should be—one that welcomes and supports us all.

The challenges the scientific enterprise faces in achieving racial equity are common in many professions, yet I remain confident that we can make real progress if we act to make positive change. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous scientists need what all other scientists need: opportunity, resources, and respect. As we recreate our spaces to be more just, equitable, and inclusive, the result will be enhanced diversity, better science, and ultimately a better society.

About the Author:

Kenneth Gibbs is Director of the Postdoctoral Research Associate Training Proram at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.