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NIH initiative boosts biomedical workforce diversity

A $50 million investment starts with graduate school applicants.

The U.S. biomedical workforce is imbalanced, with too few minority scientists moving up the educational and professional ladder, the weekly science journal Nature reports.

To increase the number of biomedical researchers of color, a working group at the National Institutes of Health — the nation’s premier medical research body — has created a plan to boost the chances for Latinos, blacks, and other underrepresented minorities to secure their first research project after graduate school.

The Maryland-based NIH, an arm of the Health and Human Services Department, plans to invest $50 million per year over the next 10 years, according to the report.

Areas of focus will include:

  • Boosting entry into graduate-degree programs.
  • Assisting in the transition into post-doctoral fellowships.
  • Helping with appointments in scientific research positions.
  • Securing grants to conduct independent research.

Instead of directly focusing on minority students, the NIH programs, fellowships, and mentorship initiatives will be implemented in schools that are less-research intensive, which generally have more students of color.

Last year, NIH created a working group to address lack of diversity in the biomedical research workforce. The group also addressed what some have characterized as a glut of young biomedical doctoral students as a result of increased NIH funding, which ultimately create a bottleneck as a large number of science researchers compete for limited positions.

“Increasing diversity of training and the workforce is critical to the future of biomedical research in the U.S., particularly as the share of the U.S. population comprised of underrepresented groups increases,” NIH authors wrote in a June report.

The NIH study showed that lack of research funding hinders upward mobility for scientists of color. One respondent said minority scientists often float from institution to institution participating in temporary research programs but rarely get tenure positions.

“After a while it becomes a catch-22,” the respondent said. “My last NIH review said ‘We don’t’ want to fund you because we would rather that you were in a tenure track position,’ and the institution said, ‘We don’t won’t put you on the tenure track without funding.’”

In 1992, underrepresented minorities made up only 4.5 percent of postdoctoral fellows in the life sciences and fewer than 2.7 percent of investigators backed by NIH grants.

Minorities have lower success rates than whites at winning NIH grants, the June report found.

Here are 2010 figures of NIH research grants broken down by race and ethnicity:

  • American Indian or Alaska Native — 0.1 percent 
  • Asian — 16.4 percent 
  • Black — 1.1 percent 
  • Hispanic — 3.5 percent 
  • White — 71 percent 
  • Other, unknown, not reported, or one or more race — 11.2 percent 

(Image via Viktorus/Shutterstock.com)

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