DR. BERNARD'S REFLECTIONS
Marie A. Bernard, MD
Acting Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity
Maintaining a diverse scientific workforce requires a detailed understanding of how beneficial support systems, like mentoring, and even deleterious events, such as COVID-19, impact researchers. As such, this month’s issue highlights a variety of new data and assessments on such topics. We review a NIH-based study on the effect of gender on mentorship. We also highlight a literature review identifying unique facilitators and barriers to mentorship for underrepresented groups and early-career investigators. Finally, we look at recent data highlighting COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on women researchers in academia.
As an added feature, we provide a link to a recent Advisory Committee to the NIH Director’s (ACD) meeting content, announcing a NIH-wide initiative to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion. You will hear more from us about this in our upcoming blog post. These articles, and the ACD meeting, remind us that only by prioritizing data-driven assessments and approaches can we protect and strengthen the diverse landscape of the scientific community.
Re-examining Gender’s Role in the Scientific Productivity of Mentees
The role of gender in mentorship and career progress has been a recent topic of discussion, resulting in inconsistent findings. Previous studies may have been limited by a number of factors: mentee-to-mentor assignment inaccuracies, gender verification difficulties, and/or limited measurements of research productivity related to training experience (e.g., publications only). To address this issue, Dr. George Santangelo, the Director of NIH’s Office of Portfolio Analysis, along with other NIH authors, examined the role of mentor gender on the productivity of early-career female scientists. As most NIH fellowship applicants self-identify gender and communicate the names of independent investigators who may act as their sponsors or mentors, it offered an opportunity to perform a more comprehensive analysis on this topic. The authors analyzed over 11,000 trainees who successfully or unsuccessfully applied for NIH fellowships—predoctoral mechanisms (F30 and F31s) and postdoctoral mechanisms (F32, K01, K08, K23, and K99s)—from FY 2011-2017.
After controlling for mentor funding levels, the study found female and male mentees were indistinguishable in terms of publication impact—assessed by Relative Citation Ratio (RCR), which measures a paper’s influence by field- and time-adjusting the citations to a standard median. Furthermore, they found female-female dyads seem to have significantly higher clinical impact (publication citations by clinical trials and guidelines) than other pairings. The results are published in a manuscript pre-print. A potential caveat is that applicants may have access to other individuals, unlisted on applications, who provide guidance that contributes to their success. Overall, however, using data generated by rigorous methods such as those reflected here helps support evidence-based approaches to diversity goals and mitigates misconceptions that could result in harmful guidance or policy decisions.
Mentoring New and Early-Career Investigators
Mentoring is critical for sustaining workforce diversity, particularly for new investigators navigating the early stages of their careers—a relatively high percentage of whom are members of underrepresented racial/ethnic minority (URM) groups compared to other career stages. For faculty in health-related disciplines, mentoring can be critically important due to the unique challenges facing them (e.g., faculty recruitment difficulties due to private sector incentives, or ambiguity surrounding institutional expectations for academic success). To better understand mentoring’s specific benefits and challenges, authors of a recent NIMHD-funded study conducted an integrative literature review synthesizing information from 46 research articles related to mentoring for early-career investigators and underrepresented minority faculty in health-related disciplines. Their goal was to identify facilitators and barriers to mentorship that impact the research success of mentees.
Overall, they found most papers recommended having multiple mentors and many advocated for assessing baseline research skills and re-evaluating progress regularly. Several trends related to barriers were noted across studies: a lack of available mentors, limited access to resources, isolation, and bias (particularly for URMs). In relation to facilitators, which could serve as corrective strategies, there were a few often-noted factors: development of technical and interpersonal skills (i.e., writing, networking, and collaborating), access to expertise and mentoring, professional development opportunities, and culturally-responsive institution and mentoring strategies. The results are somewhat limited due to the sole focus on U.S. institutions and the fact that mentoring measures were not standardized across studies (which may conflate findings). However, the results, potentially generalizable to many scientific fields, further highlight the broad importance of using evidence-based best practices to support faculty success and diversity within the scientific workforce.
COVID-19 Disruptions Disproportionately Affect Female Academics
Disproportionate childcare-related impacts on women researchers have received increasing focus since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. To examine the extent of this issue, a National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper highlights the effect the pandemic and related measures have had on female academics. The authors administered a global survey across a broad range of disciplines. The survey ran from May 27, 2020 to July 21, 2020 and examined over 19,000 responses from doctorates who published at least one academic article in the past five years. To quantify the differences, respondents estimated the average number of hours (before and after the start of the pandemic) they spent on activities within a 24-hour day which included, research, childcare, additional job-related activities, commuting, housework, sleep, and all other activities.
While respondents on average experienced a reduction in research hours, there was a disproportionate decline in research time among female academics compared to male academics. Furthermore, while most respondents with children experienced a reduction in research hours, female academics with children—especially those with young children—were disadvantaged to a significantly greater extent, losing an hour of research time more per day than childless men and women and 30 minutes more than men with children. We will soon release the results from a NIH-conducted survey of extramural researchers. Preliminarily, the data also appear to show disproportionate burdens experienced by women with caretaking responsibilities.
With respect to the NBER study, the most severe disruptions occurred with caretakers in which the youngest child was under seven years of age. The largest relative drop in research time was noted for women with children under one year of age (nearly two hours per day). They also found that in addition to research, self-care (i.e., sleep and other activities) were crowded out by the significant increase in time spent on childcare and other housework. A major caveat of the study involves the assessment of activities as mutually exclusive (i.e. ignoring the possibility of people simultaneously engaging in childcare and research activities, making them less productive in both). Overall, the results offer another set of findings which suggest the disproportionate impact of childcare on women may exacerbate gender-based gaps in the scientific workforce and that appropriately targeted approaches may be needed to produce equitable outcomes.
This Month’s Blog Posts
If you have not had an opportunity, please review this month’s blog posts at our website.
- Perspectives on the NIH Independent Research Scholar Program with Dr. Charles Dearolf
- Commemorating Black History Month at NIH: A Tribute to Dr. Geraldine Woods