We are celebrating some diversity landmarks at the National Institutes of Health!
Late last year, more than $31 million was awarded to academic institutions to develop and test strategies that address the racial diversity of the United States biomedical workforce. These new grants come from the Enhancing the Diversity of the NIH-Funded Workforce program.
As we highlight these critical efforts, I want to use this space to discuss them in relation to health disparities research. You may already know that health disparities research is different from workforce diversity. Health disparities research is the science of investigating factors that lead to some populations being disproportionately affected by various health outcomes. Each NIH Institute and Center is tasked with considering these disparities. And of course, health disparities research may be relevant for all scientists, not just those from racially diverse groups.
But back to the new funding. What is the goal of these new grants for scientific workforce diversity?
Background on scientific workforce diversity and NIH funding: what are the issues?
An NIA-supported 2011 study led by Donna Ginther investigated the relationship between NIH applicants’ self-identified race and the probability of receiving a grant to conduct biomedical research. White applicants were 10 percentage points more likely than other racial groups to receive certain kinds of research funding.
NIH has a number of activities underway to respond to these kinds of important issues.
Very capable staff from the NIH’s National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities and the NIH Common Fund, facilitated new grants to colleges and universities to:
1) build a strong pipeline for developing scientists from racially underrepresented groups
2) develop mentoring networks to keep these scientists together
3) create an evaluation center to make sure all goes as initially planned
So what is the NIA doing to help foster diversity in the research workforce?
The NIA has also been very active in addressing workforce diversity. While open to all trainees, the Butler-Williams Scholars Program has been successful in providing many underrepresented scientists with consultation and advice for developing research interests and submitting research applications to NIA. Also, the NIA Division of Extramural Activities’ participation in the NIH Research Supplements to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research program provides underrepresented scientists with important resources for establishing and sustaining a research career.
And, our NIA dissertation awards support individuals from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, individuals with disabilities, and individuals from socially, culturally, economically, or educationally disadvantaged backgrounds.
Where does health disparities research come in?
Some of the scientists supported by these diversity initiatives may choose careers that include health disparities research. In creating this pipeline and mentoring network, there may be opportunities to steer scientists from diverse backgrounds to research careers that consider health disparities research in the United States.
The NIA also has a strong focus on minority aging research that seeks to address health disparities in the U.S. Our Division of Behavioral and Social Research supports research on both social processes and individual behaviors that are critical for understanding health disparities. They also support the very successful Resource Centers for Minority Aging Research (RCMAR), which seek to increase the number of researchers who focus on health disparities by providing training in participant recruitment/retention methods and the development of culturally sensitive measures for health disparities research.
The Division of Neuroscience stimulates research that addresses cognitive factors—including Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias—that contribute to health disparities, while the NIA Division of Aging Biology supports research that explores biological, physiological, and genetic processes that connect many of NIA’s strategic priorities to disparate health outcomes. The Division of Geriatrics and Clinical Gerontology stimulates research that tests the effectiveness of interventions that seek to improve minority aging and reduce health disparities in disproportionately affected populations.
Just last year, these NIA Divisions were able to collaborate to develop the very popular NIA Health Disparities Research Administrative Supplement Program, which highlights each Division’s priority research areas for addressing health disparities.
Aging research that addresses health disparities will require multidisciplinary science teams. Disparities in the U.S. are created and sustained by a complex array of environmental, sociocultural, behavioral, and biological factors. It will be important for aging researchers—and the NIA Divisions that support these researchers—to develop links between disciplines that stimulate multi-level analysis of the factors sustaining health disparities.
The path forward on health disparities and biomedical workforce diversity
This new funding from the Enhancing the Diversity of the NIH-Funded Workforce program presents many opportunities to make important progress. Hannah Valantine has a great blog post celebrating these opportunities. This funding can help us reach goals of increasing racial diversity in the biomedical scientific community. And, there may be a chance to increase the number and variety of scientists who are trained and mentored to conduct much-needed, multidisciplinary health disparities research!