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Creating an SGM-Inclusive Biomedical Research Enterprise with Dr. Karen Parker

September 08, 2021

It’s a pleasure to introduce Dr. Karen L. Parker, Director of the NIH Sexual and Gender Minority Research Office (SGMRO). Dr. Parker was instrumental in forming the SGMRO in 2015 and was named its Director in 2016. She also co-chairs the NIH-wide Sexual & Gender Minority Research Coordinating Committee (SGM RCC) and the NIH Sexual & Gender Minority Research Working Group of the Council of Councils (SGM RWG).

Dr. Parker is also a member of the NIH Anti-Harassment Steering Committee and serves as the co-chair of the NIH Office of the Director Anti-Harassment Champions Working Group. Additionally, she sits as an ad hoc member on the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director Working Group on Diversity.

Dr. Parker is involved in several SGM-related initiatives beyond NIH. She serves as co-chair of the Measuring Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) Research Group, an entity of the Federal Committee on Statistical Methodology, and co-chair for the Department of Health and Human Services LGBT Coordinating Committee.

Dr. Parker began her career at NIH in 2001 as a Presidential Management Fellow and worked at the National Cancer Institute for 14 years in various capacities before joining the SGMRO.

Workforce diversity and inclusion efforts must support and include all underrepresented groups, including sexual and gender minority (SGM) scientists. My interview with Dr. Parker covers the vital work of the SGMRO and NIH-wide initiatives that are furthering the SGMRO’s mission.

Tell me about the mission and activities of the SGMRO.

A vital part of the SGMRO’s mission is to direct the development and implementation of the NIH-wide Strategic Plan to Advance Research on the Health and Well-being of Sexual and Gender Minorities, which serves as a roadmap to enhance the agency’s SGM-related research and data collection efforts, while also supporting a diverse scientific workforce devoted to improving our understanding of the health of SGM communities. The office strengthens and coordinates SGM research and related activities by working directly with the NIH Institutes, Centers, and Offices (ICOs).

The SGMRO has made significant strides in advancing SGM health research and related initiatives at the NIH. A few achievements include:

  • Increasing the number of funded research projects related to SGM health by 23.0 percent between 2019 and 2020,and by 66.8 percent between 2015 to 2020.
  • Implementing the SGM Administrative Supplements Program, which has provided nearly $6.1 million in funding to 64 unique supplements on a range of critical SGM health research topics. Numerous ICOs and the SGMRO have supported this agency-wide initiative.
  • Developing and updating a formal and inclusive definition of sexual and gender minorities to enhance representation of these populations in NIH-supported research and initiatives (NOT-OD-19-139).
  • Hosting scientific workshops and gathering public input to identify research opportunities in understudied groups and topics.

The SGMRO encourages support for early-career researchers to foster a more robust SGM health research workforce. The office coordinates regional workshops aimed at trainees and new investigators to better enhance capacity in SGM health research. Additionally, the SGMRO launched a free webinar series in June 2020 to promote NIH-funded SGM health research and a Researcher Spotlight feature that explores career pathways and provides guidance for building a successful career in this field. The office also created a webpage to house useful resources and tools for researchers seeking to conduct SGM-related health research.

Let’s talk about the FY2021–2025 strategic plan the SGMRO is now implementing.

The SGMRO led the development of the NIH FY 2021–2025 Strategic Plan to Advance Research on the Health and Well-being of Sexual and Gender Minorities. In the plan, released in September 2020, you’ll find scientific themes and operational goals and objectives that will enhance understanding of SGM health and health outcomes, augment sexual orientation and gender identity data collection for research and administrative activities, and foster the SGM scientific workforce. The plan will help the SGMRO continue to advocate for the equitable treatment, inclusion, and representation of SGM individuals in the biomedical and research workforce over the next four years.

The SGMRO, together with the NIH-wide Sexual & Gender Minority Research Coordinating Committee (SGM RCC), is responsible for implementing the plan. As we work to implement this new strategic plan, I am excited for the progress we will undoubtedly make across our agency and beyond over the next few years. However, we recognize that there’s still much work to be done in creating a welcoming and inclusive scientific workforce for SGM individuals and in resolving the unique health disparities encountered by the SGM population.

What working groups and committees at the NIH are also advancing knowledge of SGM individuals and research?

The first committee I’d like to discuss is the Sexual & Gender Minority Research Coordinating Committee (SGM RCC), an NIH-wide forum for discussing the diverse health research issues of SGM communities. I co-chair the committee and have served on it since its inception in 2011. The SGM RCC is a catalyst for developing additional research and related activities in these areas across the NIH. Each month, the SGM RCC meets to discuss barriers to conducting SGM-related research and provide the support needed to ensure SGM health research remains part of NIH’s research and training programs.

Another critical effort is the NIH Sexual & Gender Minority Research Working Group of the Council of Councils (SGM RWG). This group is primarily composed of extramural experts from the field of SGM health. It is charged with providing scientific expertise and input to the Council on opportunities for NIH-wide research collaborations, strategies for increasing the number of SGM investigators and the number of investigators conducting SGM-relevant research, and several other activities related to SGM health research and representation of SGM individuals in the workforce.

The SGMRO constantly works to ensure the inclusion and integration of SGM voices and perspectives in various steering committees and working groups for NIH-wide initiatives. Some examples include the UNITE Initiative, Advisory Committee to the NIH Director Working Group on Diversity, and the NIH Anti-Harassment and Anti-Racism Steering Committees.

What does a scientific workforce inclusive of SGM individuals look like to you?

I envision a workforce where there is mutual respect for one another, equity in opportunity for all, and the capacity for any individual to thrive, regardless of their background. I see a workforce that represents and embraces the full diversity of the human experience and ensures full representation and inclusion of SGM individuals in all equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts.

Dr. Bernard’s Parting Thoughts:

I encourage everyone to become familiar with the SGMRO’s work and consider how you can commit to being more inclusive of SGM individuals in your work. I share Dr. Parker’s vision for the scientific workforce, which aligns with that of the COSWD Office. We’re committed to creating cultures of inclusive excellence and sustaining scientific environments that benefit from the full range of talents at the NIH and NIH-funded institutions.