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Reaffirming NIH’s Commitment to Workforce Diversity

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11.04.21 By Marie A. Bernard and Mike Lauer
Open Mike
Credit: NIH OER

Diversity is inextricably tied to the success of the NIH mission, thus ensuring diversity within the extramural biomedical research workforce is of utmost importance. We are aware that NIH’s recent decision to rescind a “Notice of Special Interest” (or NOSI) – intended solely to call attention to the presence of a specific funding opportunity announcement and encourage researchers from underrepresented groups to apply – may have caused some to question this commitment. While the spirit of the NOSI was laudable, it may have led to an impression that by linking demographic characteristics to grant proposals, applications supporting scientists from underrepresented groups would be automatically prioritized for funding. Further, it may have left an impression that only a subset of NIH Institutes and Centers (ICs) were committed to enhancing diversity. While our commitment to ensuring diversity within the extramural biomedical research workforce remains steadfast, as a federal government agency, NIH must always consider existing federal requirements that apply to its programs, including legal considerations regarding the use of gender, race, or ethnicity to make funding decisions.

Because of this, NIH rescinded the NOSI and issued a Notice (NOT-OD-22-019) on October 25. The Notice clarifies the agency’s longstanding commitment to workforce diversity (as articulated in part in NOT-OD-20-031), which is supported across the agency, and that NIH strongly encourages scientists from under-represented groups to work with their organizations to apply for NIH support. NIH’s decision to rescind the NOSI should not be interpreted as diminishing the strong commitment of all NIH leadership to enhance diversity in the workforce we support. NIH, in coordination with its 27 ICs, issued the new Notice (NOT-OD-22-019) to state our collective commitment to ensuring a wide range of diverse perspectives are represented in NIH-supported research. Doing so benefits NIH and its stakeholders and opens the gates for highly trained scientists from diverse backgrounds to join the full range of careers needed to make robust contributions to the biomedical research enterprise.

Over the past few decades, the biomedical research workforce has benefited from NIH programs aimed at enhancing diversity. Past administrative structure, policies, funding announcements, and funded programs demonstrate our commitment to diversity. In 2014 we established the NIH Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity (COSWD) office, which one of us (MB) directs. That Office has worked closely with many internal and external stakeholders on a variety of programs, including the Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation (FIRST) Program, the Diversity Program Consortium (which includes the Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity, or BUILD, and National Mentoring Research Network, or NMRN, Programs), and the NIH Distinguished Scholars Program.

However, NIH recognizes that there is considerable room for improvement, particularly at the level of independent scientists and within scientific leadership. As a matter of policy, we have introduced diversity-related elements into our funding announcements and into specific programs. For example, our T32 announcements require that applicants submit recruitment plans to enhance diversity. The BRAIN initiative recently implemented an application requirement for plans for enhancing diverse perspectives.

NIH has long funded diversity supplements, but more recently through the Common Fund NIH has taken on ambitious programs to enhance research in health disparities and to build artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities in under-resourced communities. The National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) recently re-issued its Research Centers in Minority Institutions (RCMI) program. The National Institute of General Medical Sciences has developed the Maximizing Opportunities for Scientific and Academic Independent Careers (MOSAIC) (K99/R00 and UE5) program with most ICs participating.

NIH appreciates that scientists from under-represented groups have been and continue to be substantially under-represented in the biomedical research workforce and in the NIH extramural portfolio. We have seen some encouraging trends in recent years, including a marked increase in the number of applications and an increase in funding rates from scientists from under-represented groups. However, we recognize that progress is slow and the number of these applications far too few. We still have a long way to go.

In an effort to spur more robust and sustained change, NIH established the UNITE Initiative aimed at ending structural racism in biomedical research. The initiative has thus far implemented programs such as Transformative Health Disparities Research Funding Opportunities, and the NIMHD RFA on Understanding and Addressing the Impact of Structural Racism and Discrimination on Minority Health and Health Disparities. The weeks and months to come will yield even more initiatives to accelerate the enhancement of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

We hope that this blog addresses any questions about the intent and meaning of the newly published Notice, the rescinding of the NOSI, and clarifies that enhancing diversity is one of NIH’s top priorities. By increasing the diversity of our research workforce, our funded science, and the nation’s health will be better for it.

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