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Championing a Diverse Genomics Workforce

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1 year 7 months
12.01.21 By Marie A. Bernard
Vence L. Bonham, Jr., JD.
Photo credit: NHGRI

I am pleased to introduce Vence L. Bonham, Jr., JD., Acting Deputy Director of the NIH National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). Mr. Bonham leads NHGRI’s health equity and workforce diversity programs and delivers on NHGRI’s mission across the NIH.

He is a member of the leadership team at NHGRI that led the development of the 2020 NHGRI Strategic Vision, which highlights the importance of enhancing the diversity of the genomic workforce. In support of this vision, NHGRI director Eric Green, M.D., Ph.D., asked Mr. Bonham to lead the creation of an action agenda, “Building a Diverse Genomics Workforce: An NHGRI Action Agenda,” which was released in January 2021. That same month, they published a commentary in the American Journal of Human Genetics about the imperative and rationale behind the need for increased diversity in the genomics and biomedical workforce.

Mr. Bonham directs NHGRI’s Health Disparities Unit within its Social and Behavioral Research Branch. An associate investigator, his research focuses on health disparities and issues related to health equity.

Mr. Bonham is also a member of the NIH UNITE initiative’s “N” Committee, dedicated to “New Research on Health Disparities/Minority Health/Health Equity,” which supports the larger UNITE goal of identifying and ending structural racism in the NIH-supported biomedical research enterprise.

I recently spoke with Mr. Bonham about NHGRI’s efforts to advance scientific workforce diversity.

Q: What role does scientific workforce diversity play in the 2020 NHGRI Strategic Vision?

NHGRI completed an extensive strategic planning process in 2020, which led to the Institute’s third strategic vision since completing the Human Genome Project; its theme is the Forefront of Genomics. One of the vision’s guiding principles calls for NHGRI to champion a diverse genomics workforce through new strategies and programs that enhance genomics career opportunities by promoting diversity, inclusion practices, and leadership. NHGRI has historically funded programs designed to promote diversity in the genomics discipline. However, the strategic vision aims to accelerate the rate of change because, despite our efforts, the genomics workforce still fails to represent our nation’s intellectual capital.

Our goal is to recruit and retain individuals from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, women, differently abled individuals, and those from sexual and gender minority populations. NHGRI will not achieve its mission of advancing the scientific and medical breakthroughs that benefit everyone in the United States if our workforce is not inclusive of a variety of people and perspectives.

Q: How will NHGRI achieve its goal of making the genomics workforce more diverse and inclusive?

The action agenda released by NHGRI in January is guiding a broad range of activities across the Institute. Developed by the NHGRI Genomic Workforce Diversity Working Group as an extension of the strategic vision, it is an ambitious roadmap for NHGRI’s imperative to build a diverse genomics workforce by 2030.

The action agenda describes four goals that will reduce barriers to training opportunities and support the career development of individuals from groups underrepresented in science. The goals are tied to a series of short- and long-term steps to substantially increase the diversity of the genomics discipline over the next 10 years.

The scientific community can learn more about the NHGRI’s action agenda in a January American Journal of Human Genetics commentary I wrote with NHGRI Director Dr. Green. We discuss the rationale for the agenda and the goals that will allow NHGRI to achieve equity in genomics.

Q: In the journal Human Genetics and Genomics Advances, you and your colleagues propose an “anti-racist ethos” for cultivating diversity in science. Could you describe what that means?

In our September commentary, my trainees and lab staff propose a shift for promoting diversity in science. We envision diversity as an ethos or culture that confronts inequitable structures and behaviors in all aspects of the scientific endeavor.

Central to this ethos is the idea that diversity is not an outcome. Diversity is an ongoing process that requires all parts of the scientific endeavor—including researchers, labs, and institutions—to build anti-racist actions into their workplaces and individual activities.

My colleagues and I identified three key approaches that will move the scientific endeavor toward an anti-racist ethos. In short, these are:

  1. Valuing diversity beyond the numbers.
  2. Acknowledging that diversity is not a favor.
  3. Reflecting on diversity by challenging institutional norms.

We also provide a set of questions the scientific community can use to facilitate challenging, but critical conversations about structural racism. The questions will help researchers and teams assess whether they contribute to an equitable, anti-racist research environment.

I encourage your audience to read an op-ed in The Hill by Dr. Green, “An Anti-Racist Action Plan for Studying the Human Genome.” He expands on our commentary and NHGRI’s commitment to anti-racism.

Tell me more about the role of the broader scientific community in cultivating a diverse, inclusive scientific workforce.

NHGRI has dedicated leadership and resources to workforce diversity, but the success of our efforts depends on the participation of the entire genomics community. It requires everyone involved to question their actions and consider new models of behavior, both on the institutional and individual levels. While the collective and individual work ahead of us is immense, I am excited by the idea of the scientific community coming together to transform genomics.

Dr. Bernard’s Reflections

NHGRI is at the forefront of diversifying the scientific workforce and serves as a model for the NIH and broader scientific community, considering diversity in all components of its activities. Diversity benefits everyone by bringing innovation and new ideas to the scientific endeavor, and I echo Mr. Bonham’s call for us to work together to build an inclusive biomedical research community.

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