DR. BERNARD'S REFLECTIONS
Marie A. Bernard, MD
Acting Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity
On March 25, NIH released high-level findings from our extramural COVID-19 surveys, wherein we assessed the impact of the pandemic on the extramural scientific communities and institutions. Throughout the pandemic, our office has participated in discussions with NIH leadership, scientific societies, leading institutions, and subject matter experts on protecting scientific workforce diversity in the face of the pandemic’s deleterious effects. A critical takeaway from this work is the necessity of rigorous, scientifically sound data collection. As such, the articles in this month’s newsletter highlight research with the shared aim of uncovering the landscape of scientific workforce diversity across academic science disciplines, how it has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and ultimately how we can work to protect it.
Pre-Pandemic Diversity: Composition of the U.S. Health Care Workforce
To effectively assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the scientific workforce and determine appropriate mechanisms of intervention and support, it is critical to understand the pre-pandemic landscape of workforce diversity. A recent article by Salsberg and colleagues shines a light on racial/ethnic disparities across ten professions in the US health care workforce. Study authors compared the diversity of the U.S. working-age population with weighted data from the 2019 American Community Survey for ten health care occupations. Authors also compared the diversity of the U.S. graduating-age population with 2019 data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System to understand what they refer to as the "educational pipeline."
Salsberg and colleagues then developed a health care diversity index—the ratio of current workers by racial/ethnic group in a given occupation relative to their representation in the US population, where a value of 1 indicates equal representation. Study results indicated that Black, Hispanic, and Native American professionals were underrepresented across ten health care occupations. Among Blacks, the mean diversity index was 0.54 in the current workforce and in the educational pipeline; for Hispanics, it was 0.34 in the current workforce and 0.48 in the educational pipeline. The mean diversity index for Native Americans was 0.54 in the current workforce and 0.57 in the educational pipeline. Results indicated that while progress has been made to address racial and ethnic diversity in these occupations, intervention is needed to bolster both recruitment and retention in the health care workforce—particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Women in Academic Science
Women and individuals underrepresented in the workforce tend to be hit the hardest by crisis situations due to financial cuts across institutions, de-emphasis on diversity and inclusion initiatives, and exacerbation of existing disparities. NIH’s own Office of Research on Women’s Health has developed a comprehensive webpage dedicated to the impact of COVID-19 on women, which dovetails with a recent report developed by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) assessing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the research careers of women in sciences, engineering, and medicine (SEM). Co-sponsored by NIH, the report explores whether ongoing interventions help or harm women in academic research and/or impact women differently than men, the unique challenges women in academic research currently face, and how these factors impact the research careers of women in SEM.
As Acting Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity, I was invited to participate in a reflection and perspective panel at NASEM on March 31, 2021. During that meeting, I shared findings from our Extramural COVID-19 survey, including that women in academic science were more likely than men to report that caretaking made it substantially more difficult to complete their work responsibilities, and that mental/physical health more often impacted productivity among women—particularly Women of Color. These findings corroborated several key points from the NASEM report. First, institutional decisions such as layoffs and furloughs in the early days of the pandemic tended to affect positions more frequently occupied by women and People of Color, resulting in financial insecurity or sharp drops in career prospects. Second, even prior to the pandemic, Women of Color in academic science experienced disproportionate expectations for emotional labor and care responsibilities in the workplace. The pandemic may have amplified these expectations and increased the likelihood of burnout and productivity loss for this group. Finally, research indicates that Women of Color had a higher likelihood of experiencing COVID-19 related death in their family relative to non-Hispanic white colleagues, a burden that no doubt takes an explicit toll on mental health and other psychosocial needs. These findings, among others, indicate that institutional supports for researchers impacted by the pandemic must account for the experiences of those with multiple marginalized identities.
Spotlight on Mental Health
Data regarding the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the scientific workforce is limited but evolving. One such example is a recent letter to the editor published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. Study authors conducted a survey of 1,809 members of the Physician Mothers Facebook group in April 2020 to quantify anxiety and associated factors in this population. 41 percent of respondents scored above the cutoff for moderate or severe anxiety as measured by the Generalized Anxiety Disorder 7-item scale, with 18 percent reporting severe anxiety. Anxiety was higher in respondents who identified as frontline workers and informal caregivers.
Although evidence is limited in this emerging area, the NASEM report describes additional context for these data. The report notes that factors such as social isolation, disconnection from women role models, exposures to discrimination and related stress, and economic and family concerns may exacerbate mental health consequences for women in science—in particular, for Women of Color. Taken together, these findings indicate potential points of intervention to support the mental health and wellbeing of women during this difficult time.
Creating an Institutional Safety Net: Academic Careers and the Pandemic
The results of the NIH workforce and extramural COVID-19 surveys revealed critical intervention points for sustaining scientific workforce diversity during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, NIH survey findings suggested we pay close attention to trainees and lab-based researchers, consider additional supports for caretakers, and continue to ascertain differential experiences among URGs and non-URGS with regard to productivity and long-term career trajectory. A recent publication by Carr and colleagues further highlights the critical need to assess the impact of the pandemic on academic careers.
Study authors describe three ‘buckets’ of deleterious effects of the pandemic: COVID-19 impact on research operations, infrastructure, and finances; COVID-19 impact on the current research workforce and pipeline; and the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on underrepresented minority (URM) researchers. They delineate actionable strategies to mitigate these deleterious effects. For example, to address negative effects on research infrastructure, institutions could promote the use of existing multi-institutional databases to access data that may otherwise be unavailable in the pandemic landscape. To address issues with the research pathway, the authors suggest extending protected time accommodations for unfunded early career investigators, particularly those hard-hit by the pandemic. Finally, to address disproportionate impacts on URM investigators, institutions may consider recognizing and rewarding (e.g., via promotion metrics or honorary appointments) the disproportionate service work performed by URM researchers.
This Month’s Blog Posts
If you have not had an opportunity, please review this month’s blog posts at our website.
- Applications Open! Jump Start Your Career with the Virtual 2021 Future Research Leaders Conference
- Perspectives on the NIH Working Group on Women in Biomedical Careers with Dr. Janine Austin Clayton