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Confronting Bias to Advance Science

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I’m biased.

I know this for several reasons. First, everyone is. Research study after research study has conclusively demonstrated that bias pervades our decision-making processes, as we make assumptions about people based on their gender, the color of their skin, or other qualities irrelevant to their merit. Second, I tested positive for bias—yes, there are tests. The most common exploit the fact that we subconsciously associate certain words with a given race or gender. These associations are revealed by examining reaction times in a simple word sorting task. I went to implicit.harvard.edu and took two of the many tests they have there—a gender-science test and the skin-tone test. Like the majority of people who take them, my results revealed biases in my subconscious associations (though there is debate about their relevance to real-world decisions). Third, and perhaps most importantly, I recognize this pattern in myself, perhaps because of my training as a psychiatrist or perhaps because I’ve come of age during a time when we are increasingly recognizing the negative effects of such biases. It is only with such awareness that we can take positive steps as individuals and organizations to challenge assumptions and combat the damaging impact of bias.

These negative effects harm science. This thesis is masterfully explicated and defended in a recent article in Neuron by Maria Asplund, Ph.D., of the University of Freiburg, and Cristin Welle, Ph.D., at the University of Colorado. They outline the evidence in support of the notion that we are all biased; the impact of this bias on the careers of women and underrepresented minorities; the role of institutions and individuals in counteracting bias; and, concrete steps that we can take to combat implicit bias, whether as leaders of these institutions or individual scientists in our own labs. Crucially, the authors make the strong case, backed by peer-reviewed studies, that unchecked bias impedes the quality and pace of progress in science. It is a fascinating and important paper, and I urge you to read it.

Chief amongst their recommendations is the notion that as scientists, we each have a distinct and personal responsibility to address bias in our own decision-making processes—whether we are interviewing graduate student applicants, deciding whether to accept a postdoc into the lab, evaluating applications for faculty positions, writing letters of recommendation, choosing collaborators and forming consortia, determining authorship for a manuscript, selecting speakers for symposia, or any of the other myriad tasks that involve making decisions about people. This means making decisions based, as much as possible, on objective factors—but it also means recognizing that women and people of color have been impacted by bias throughout their careers. Correcting this bias takes active intervention.

Asplund and Welle suggest several interventions for all scientists to take. These include: actively seeking diversity when making decisions about people; being inclusive of members of underrepresented groups; sharing the responsibility of ensuring diversity, not leaving it to individual team members or diversity officers; recognizing and resisting implicit bias in yourself and others; and, being an advocate for valuing diversity in science. Importantly, they cite evidence for the efficacy of these interventions and for the efficacy of implicit bias training.

At the NIMH, we recognize our particular responsibility as funders and leaders in the field of mental illness research. As an institution, we need to ensure that we minimize the impact of implicit bias, promote workforce diversity, and foster inclusiveness when it comes to recruiting research participants for studies in our portfolios. We do this by insisting on diversity in human subjects research participants in research grants and monitoring compliance with this objective; requiring training grants to recruit and train women and members of underrepresented groups and report on the success of these efforts; providing supplements to research grants to provide additional funds to support the involvement of trainees from underrepresented minorities; and, supporting programs like the Neuroscience Blueprint’s ENDURE and the BRAIN K99/R00 that aim to increase the involvement in science by members of underrepresented groups. The ENDURE program provides mentorship and financial support to undergraduate students interested in science; the BRAIN K99/R00 program is open to women and minority trainees transitioning to independence in the context of research that aligns with the NIH BRAIN Initiative mission.

Recognizing that we can and need to do more to promote equity and ensure diversity throughout NIMH, we have created an Office of Disparities Research and Workforce Diversity. This office reports directly to me and is charged with ensuring that efforts to combat implicit bias and efforts to ensure quality science through the inclusion of diversity pervade the entire NIMH enterprise. I am currently seeking a director of this office with the experience, skills, and creativity to lead this effort. This person will also be responsible for advancing research and building a robust portfolio on mental health disparities. If you or someone you know might be interested, please see the announcement on the NIMH website.

We won’t let bias hold us back. To advance that science that will ultimately transform the understanding and treatment of mental illnesses, NIMH will take every opportunity to build a scientific community that represents all of us.

References:

Asplund, M., & Welle, C. G. (2018). Advancing science: How bias holds us back. Neuron, 99(4), 635-639.

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