As you may know, prior to becoming the COSWD, I was deputy director of the National Institute on Aging (NIA) at NIH. I recently discussed strategies to enhance scientific workforce diversity in the aging-focused research workforce in a guest editorial coauthored for the November issue of the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences with colleagues from NIA: Patricia L. Jones, Ph.D., director, Office of Special Populations, and Samir Sauma, Ph.D., director, Office of Planning, Analysis, and Evaluation. The NIH-wide resources identified and the specific programs sponsored by NIA have applicability across the scientific workforce landscape.
We outline the importance of a diverse aging-focused research workforce, challenges to biomedical and behavioral workforce diversity, and approaches NIH employs to overcome barriers people from underrepresented groups encounter in their scientific pursuits. And we encourage organizations to foster diversity in aging-focused research through similar evidence-based programs and practices.
The Importance of a Diverse Aging-Focused Research Workforce
Ample evidence from business and scientific settings shows that diversity of thought leads to greater creativity and innovation. Equitable representation of researchers from diverse backgrounds and perspectives in the scientific workforce is critical to facilitating better health outcomes for the entire U.S. population, including older adults. Therefore, the NIH approach to diversity is broad and includes, but is not limited to, diversity by race, ethnicity, disability, socioeconomic status, and gender.
Focused interventions enhance diversity in the biomedical and behavioral research workforce and promote its growth. Recent NIH data show a lack of representation of individuals from underrepresented groups among NIH applicants and funded principal investigators (PIs). For example, research grants NIH awarded to institutions in 2020 supported 72.9% White PIs compared with 22.6% Asian PIs, 2.7% Black PIs, and 0.3% American Indian or Alaskan Native PIs. Although NIH is making progress in increasing the numbers of Black and Hispanic applicants, more work is needed in this area.
NIH’s commitment to enhancing diversity in the aging-focused research workforce is critical to meeting the needs of U.S. adults 65 and older, who are projected to represent 21.6% of the population by 2040. Meanwhile, the general population is expected to become increasingly diverse, and the nation could face a shortage of between 17,800 and 48,000 geriatric medical physicians by 2034.
In response, NIH is committed to engaging individuals from underrepresented groups in biomedical and behavioral research, advancing minority health and health disparities research, and reducing health disparities.
Expanding and Diversifying the Aging-Focused Research Talent Pool
As noted by my coauthors, NIA leads the aging research agenda for the nation and vital strategies to diversify the aging-focused research workforce. NIA interventions support individuals ranging from high school students to early-stage and established investigators. Among the more than a dozen programs we mention in our editorial is NIA’s Shock Academy for Introduction to Laboratory Skills (SAILS), a three-day, hands-on training program for high school students, and the Butler-Williams Scholars Program, which has provided career leadership and development for faculty and researchers new to the field of aging since 1987.
UNITE is the NIH-wide initiative to identify and address structural racism in biomedical and behavioral research. Efforts in line with this include the recently re-announced COSWD-led initiative to provide diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility mentorship administrative supplements to recognize great mentors’ role in developing future scientific leaders. The Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation (FIRST) Program, which builds inclusive excellence through faculty cohort recruitment, is another exemplary program in line with UNITE’s goals.
These are just a few of NIH’s significant investments devoted to growing and diversifying the base of researchers in the United States. Our article details these strategies in full and UNITE, COSWD, and NIA resources help facilitate a broader representation of individuals in the scientific workforce.