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Post by Former NIMH Director Thomas Insel: Striving for Diversity

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A paper published today in Science reports that “Black or African American applicants are 13 percentage points less likely to receive NIH investigator-initiated research funding compared to Whites.”1 Even controlling for differences in an applicant’s educational background, country of origin, training, prior research awards, publication record, and employer characteristics, Black or African American applicants were still 10 percentage points less likely to be funded than White applicants.

These troubling results follow other reports that diversity remains a goal rather than an achievement in the biomedical workforce. A recent National Academy of Science report indicates that the pipeline of diverse new talent is broken: self-identified minority students are under-represented in graduate programs and post-doctoral fellowships in math and science.2 As described in the National Advisory Mental Health Council report on research training (Investing in the Future), in 2005, only 5.6 percent of PhD degrees in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) disciplines went to underrepresented minorities, 3 and, of particular import for NIMH, this is especially noticeable in certain fields: for example, 1.9 percent of neuroscience graduates, 5.3 percent of psychology graduates, and 13 percent of social work graduates self-identified as Black.4

Achieving diversity in the NIMH workforce, our advisory committees, and our grantee population has been a core value for NIMH for at least the past three decades. For us, diversity has meant creating opportunity, especially the opportunity for people with different perspectives, who have overcome difficult challenges, and who can solve problems in new ways to work on the ultimate complex problem: the mysteries of brain and behavior.

In the past, NIMH has had a range of programs to increase diversity in the pipeline of investigators receiving funds from the Institute’s primary research grant mechanism (R01), including institutional programs for undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral research training, individual predoctoral fellowship programs, and special supplement programs for R01 grants to target training of underrepresented minorities. We have invested more than $200 million in these programs in the last decade alone. However, funds alone may not overcome the barriers to research careers, as suggested by this Science paper. Our own data are not encouraging. Of the 1,772 R01 investigators funded by NIMH in 2010, only 19 (1.1 percent) self-identified as Black or African American, 73 (4.1 percent) as Hispanic, and 11 (0.6 percent) as American Indian or Alaskan Native.5 Within our own staff here at NIMH, although 33% of our Extramural Program Officers reported as minority (6% Black or African American, 9% Hispanic, and 18% Asian or Pacific Islander), only 14% of Intramural Principal Investigators self-identified as minority (10% reported as Asian or Pacific Islander, and 4% as Hispanic).

We’ve got to do better. And we’ve got to do something different. Here is what we are rolling out.

  • NIMH spearheaded the development of a funding opportunity announcement, “Blueprint Program for Enhancing Neuroscience Diversity through Undergraduate Research Education Experiences” (RFA-MH-10-070). The grants award an estimated $10.3 million over 5 years.
  • In fiscal year (FY) 2010, NIMH implemented the NIMH Program to Enhance Diversity in Institutional Training as a supplement to existing institutional awards. This program is specifically designed to help retain individuals in the training pipeline and to provide these individuals with mentored research training in a strong institutional training program.
  • NIMH released the initiative, “Seeding National Mentoring Networks to Enhance Diversity of the Mental Health Research Workforce” (RFA-MH-10-050) in late 2009. Its purpose was to stimulate institutions to conceptualize, plan, and pilot innovative prototypes for a national infrastructure to mentor individuals from diverse backgrounds who are conducting mental health-relevant research. Three awards are anticipated in the current fiscal year.

All of NIH shares our concerns about workforce diversity. Recently, NIH awarded 6 grants (totaling approximately $12 million over three years) to support research to understand the many factors that contribute to and potentially remedy the lack of diversity in the scientific workforce, through the NIH Director’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) Pathfinder Award to Promote Diversity in the Scientific Workforce. Investigators will examine how bias occurs in academic environments, create new interactive communities and accessible laboratories for people with disabilities, and study whether mentoring interventions create resilience, to name a few examples. Importantly, these research efforts will examine the environmental and institutional factors that influence career trajectories and outcomes.

Through efforts, both at NIMH and NIH as a whole, we must do better to ensure that our workforce reflects the range of backgrounds, perspectives, and talents that has made this nation a source of innovation.

  1. Ginther,DK, Schaffer, WT, Schnell, J, Masimore, B, Liu, F, Haak, LL, Kington, R (2011). Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Awards. Science.
  2. Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads. National Academies Press (2010).
  3. Chubin, DE. Modeling Scientific Workforce Diversity. National Institute of General Medical Sciences. The Big Picture: Contexts for URM Training. Presentation October 3, 2007. (
  4. Hoffer TB, Welch V, Jr., Williams K, Lisek B, Hess M, Loew D, Guzman-Barron I. Doctorate Recipients from United States Universities: Summary Report 2005. Chicago: National Opinion Research Center, 2006.
  5. Source: Derived from data provided by NIH Office of Extramural Research Division of Information Services Reporting Branch, 12/22/10 and 1/11/11