DR. BERNARD'S REFLECTIONS
Marie A. Bernard, MD
Acting Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity
Every new year provides new opportunities. As we start 2021, and we see the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, there are potentially new pathways forward in diversifying the scientific workforce. Those efforts, of course, should be evidence based. Thus, we share in this month’s issue new data for consideration. We review a reexamination of NIH funding disparities, providing the potential for new approaches. We highlight a new strategic vision for genomic science, with principles for diversification of the workforce that can be generalized to other scientific fields. Finally, we look at recent data highlighting disadvantages of LGBTQ persons in STEM which may offer clues to next steps. Overall, these items contribute to the growing body of information to propel inclusive excellence in the scientific workforce and support the health of all members of our society.
Re-Examination of NIH Funding Disparities
Demographic disparities in NIH grant funding has been an oft-reported topic since 2011, when Ginther and colleagues found African American and Black (AA/B) scientists were less likely to obtain critical R01 grants—which was corroborated by other reports (Ginther et al., 2016; Hoppe et al., 2019; Erosheva et al., 2020). Active discussions continue about factors that contribute to this disparity, including bias in peer review and grant topic choice—due to recent, related findings (Hoppe et al., 2019).
To address this issue, Dr. Michael Lauer, NIH’s Deputy Director for Extramural Research, conducted a re-analysis of the Hoppe data, which suggests the disparity may be attributable to a more influential, yet previously unconsidered factor: differential funding rates of NIH Institutes and Centers (ICs) that receive a higher than average proportion of applications from AA/B scientists. While Dr. Lauer’s re-analysis supports the idea that “AA/B-preferred” topics are funded at lower rates, their peer review outcomes are similar to majority peers. Dr. Lauer’s regression analysis found AA/B-preferred topics tend to be assigned to ICs with lower overall award rates. These findings suggest grant topic plays a role, but the ICs they are assigned to play an even larger role. The results are published in a manuscript pre-print.
This new piece of evidence adds to the ongoing discussion and shifts the focus to differential IC funding as a potential avenue to pursue to address funding disparities.
Advancing Genomics, Health, and the Scientific Workforce
The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) published its ambitious strategic vision for the next decade. As a leading authority in the genomics field, NHGRI outlined principles and objectives to address major needs within the field—many of which focus on enhancing diversity within the genomics workforce by 2030.
One principle focused on training and genomics workforce development, acknowledging that related initiatives should be intentional in their inclusion of scientists from underrepresented groups and establish incentives to recruit and retain a diverse workforce at all career stages. Other guiding principles focused on striving for diversity in research, which highlighted the need to integrate more ancestrally diverse and underrepresented individuals in major genomic studies to allow genomics to better serve the whole of society. As genomics continues to expand into other fields (e.g., law enforcement), a different principle highlighted the need to be more inclusive of scientific expertise (including basic, translational, social, behavioral, and clinical researchers) to ensure genomics is appropriately applied in all the realms it is used. This may ultimately contribute to demographic diversity as topic choice is associated with demographics (as noted in the section above).
Ultimately, as a global leader, NHGRI’s promising set of priorities will be critical to ensuring our society continues to benefit from the ever-expanding use of genomics.
Analyses of LGBTQ STEM Inequalities
A recent Science publication highlights systemic inequalities reported by Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and/or Queer (LGBTQ) professionals in STEM. Although there is U.S. workforce-wide research on disadvantages for LGBTQ persons, there is a need to account for highly specialized professional contexts, such as those in STEM. To this end, extensive survey data from 21 wide-ranging STEM professional societies captured responses from over 25,000 full-time professionals, including 1,006 who self-identified as LGBTQ. Potential inequalities were examined along several dimensions. For instance, LGBTQ professionals were statistically more likely than their non-LGBTQ peers to report limited career opportunities, social marginalization and harassment, and devaluation of professional expertise by colleagues. Additionally, LGBTQ respondents were less likely to feel comfortable with the whistleblowing process and more likely to consider leaving STEM.
Furthermore, supplemental analyses highlighted the extent to which LGBTQ disadvantages varied in an intersectional fashion with other demographic factors. These showed that transgender and gender nonbinary respondents were more likely to report health problems, and LGBTQ-identifying racial/ethnic minorities and women were more likely than their white and male LGBTQ counterparts to experience professional devaluation and harassment at work. Although the survey broke ground with the large number of respondents, one important limitation is that it overrepresents STEM professionals employed in academia and engineering and underrepresents those in computer science. However, the results highlight the overall need for the scientific enterprise to address anti-LGBTQ sentiments and behavior—and encourage the continual inclusion of LGBTQ groups in survey assessments. This can prevent the departure of diverse, skilled talent and promote equity, bolstering the scientific enterprise and STEM innovation.
This Month’s Blog Posts
If you have not had an opportunity, please review this month’s blog posts at our website.