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Diversity for the Future: Accelerating Change and Sustainability

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6 years 9 months
05.05.17 By Hannah A. Valantine
Dr. Valantine
Dr. Hannah Valantine at the NIH Future Research Leaders Conference

As I’ve noted in previous blogs and elsewhere, I see enhancing workforce diversity as an opportunity and an imperative for maintaining our nation’s biomedical research preeminence in an increasingly competitive global environment. But to grasp this opportunity, we as a biomedical community face a set of cross-cutting challenges ripe for innovative, evidence-based solutions. In an article I co-authored with NIH Director Francis Collins, we proposed that sustainability of efforts to enhance diversity in the scientific workforce will unleash boundless opportunities to benefit the full ecosystem of biomedical research spanning discovery to application. In this blog, I expand on how we might address sustainability with the goal of accelerating diversity and inclusion in the scientific workforce. But let me first draw your attention to some relevant facts regarding NIH’s diversity efforts in the training phase of the biomedical research career path, and how the data allows us to set the stage for sustainable and rapid change. 

Over the past few decades, NIH’s investment in workforce diversity has had a positive effect on growing the pipeline of diverse talent. In short, we’ve been successful by some accounts. Between 1980 and 2013, the number of Ph.D. graduates from underrepresented backgrounds rose 9.3-fold. That’s compared to a much more modest growth (2.6-fold) in the number of Ph.Ds. from well-represented groups. This means that individuals from underrepresented groups (URGs) now make up about 10% of biomedical Ph.D. recipients, but despite this increase in the trainee pools, URGs only comprise 4% of research faculty. For women, we see a similar trend: although women have exceeded half of Ph.D. graduates in the biological sciences for more than 10 years, women comprise 38% of tenure-track faculty, 22% of tenured faculty, and even fewer hold leadership positions (department chairs, medical school deans). These hard facts indicate that, although our numbers of diverse trainees have grown, we are not capitalizing on investments to ensure their transition into the academic biomedical research workforce and leadership. This perpetuates a vicious cycle limiting the diversity of academic faculty that is essential for preparing the next generation of scientists for all sectors essential for U.S. biomedical innovation. Research shows that diversity among students and trainees enhances the quality of learning and education, and that diversity among the researchers themselves broadens the scope of research.

Essentially, the data tell us this story: we have a diverse pipeline of talent in science, but it leaks at transition points – especially at the transition from training to career independence. Attrition at this career transition stage may be partly related to the paucity of NIH programs designed enhance faculty diversity. Moreover, “pipeline” probably isn’t the best metaphor since not everyone follows the same path to a biomedical career.

students in a lab

So, what can we do to sustain diversity in the biomedical research workforce? One approach to sustainability that we have already pursued is to draw from NIH’s past investment in supporting early-career scientists from underrepresented groups on diversity supplements, focusing on postdocs. These funds, used by all NIH Institutes and Centers, are provided via administrative supplements to enhance diversity in NIH-funded labs and have shown very promising results in a few analyses that have evaluated impact. For example, NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences learned that their diversity supplements appeared to promote entry and re-entry of postdoctoral trainees to research-intensive institutions and that the majority of diversity supplement awardees chose research and research-leadership careers in biomedicine. Clearly, we have a pool of talent that is ready for action. Can we get these people into biomedical research jobs right now and boost the diversity of the whole system, including faculty positions?


I see another approach for sustaining workforce diversity in creating partnerships between the public and private sector. In 2014, the latest data available, NIH supported the training of about 13,500 graduate students in biomedical research nationwide. Few of these trainees are actually unemployed, but we know that many choose to pursue directions beyond academic research. These include non-academic research, teaching, industry, and others. Various factors play into these career choices: A recent labor-market analysis showed that those graduate students who skipped a postdoc are about three times more likely to go into industry. Could it be the money? Because of the recent accumulation of highly trained talent in our biomedical system, I think we have an extraordinary opportunity to direct these individuals to a job market where so many types of science minds are needed.

I have a vision of a national model for a coordinated approach to diversity sustainability through public-private partnerships. We are developing the concept for “Hubs of Innovation” in scientific workforce diversity that will create, deploy, test, and disseminate new prototype diversity programs designed to meet the needs of the entire biomedical system, including both the public and private sectors. I see each Hub as an interdisciplinary effort that draws evidence about recruitment and retention from existing diversity programs (diversity supplements, FRLC, the Diversity Program Consortium (BUILDNRMN, CEC) and others such as the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE program). The research-based Hubs will use sound research and design principles to develop integrated, data-driven approaches to introduce diverse talent to the many science careers needed for 21st century biomedicine to thrive. Hubs will build effective, cross-cutting partnerships among a range of academic institution types (minority-serving institutions, research intensive and teaching), industry, business, and policy. Stay tuned for more details as we develop and implement this innovative concept.

Howard University students

Forward-thinking partnerships like the one between Howard University and Google to create Howard West is an example of the innovation necessary to enhance the diversity of the biomedical workforce. Photo credit – Howard University.

It is indeed an exciting time to be part of biomedicine, and imagine the creativity we can harness by bringing so many different perspectives and backgrounds to solving health-related challenges. The tech sector is already on it; companies like Google and Facebook are actively harnessing their expertise in big data into the health arena. This is an opportunity we cannot miss, since we have such a rich talent pool available. Congruent with the increasing importance of data science in biomedical research, NIH has established a Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) R25 program to support educational activities that enhance the diversity of the biomedical, behavioral, and clinical research workforce. Why not also harness tech tools and expertise to develop tools to recruit and retain diverse talent?

Let me end with some good news that helps connect the dots. As I mentioned earlier, a diverse talent pool has grown over the past 20 years. Given the current annual pool of biomedical Ph.D. URGs (about 10% of the total), it could take only a few years to enhance diversity in early-stage faculty positions, and to introduce diverse talent into careers beyond academia where their contributions to technology and policy innovations are essential for sustaining the U.S. biomedical enterprise.

The opportunity is here – we don’t need to wait – we must apply a coordinated and scientific approach to sustainability!


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