A research team at Boston College will lead the development of the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN) as part of a five year, $19 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) aimed at diversifying the NIH workforce. The initiative will draw on the expertise of faculty members at four other universities to train and mentor underrepresented minorities in biomedical research.
David Burgess, a professor in the biology department who has had significant experience advocating for more equitable NIH funding, will lead the team at BC, which serves as the initiative’s administrative headquarters.
The NIH expects the NRMN to grow into a nationwide network of mentors who will work with mentees of diverse backgrounds to enhance their training and career development in biomedical research. The network currently consists of over 100 partner organizations, including private and public colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions, historically black colleges and universities, organizations supporting tribal colleges, and a number of scientific societies.
“NRMN will work by developing culturally responsive mentor training programs, professional development activities and mentoring activities,” said Burgess, who has previously advised a congressional committee to address the issue of the disparity. “We will work with biomedical mentees [who] are undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and junior faculty to help them make the transition successfully from each stage to the next.”
The NIH found in a 2011 study entitled Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Awards that Asian and black scientists were less likely to receive NIH funding than their white counterparts. The study, which examined researchers who applied for grants between 2000 and 2006, found black scientists were about 13 percent less likely and Asian scientists were 5 percent less likely to receive grants than their white counterparts, when controlling for position and location of the applicant. Burgess said research suggests that implicit bias exists in the application process, and that it is likely the cause of the disparity.
Each year the NIH awards approximately $26 billion in biomedical research funding. Grants are awarded through a peer-review process, in which researchers submit proposals to a panel of field experts. According to Burgess, few underrepresented minority scientists participate in the peer-review process.
In response to the 2011 study, NIH director Francis Collins called for the formation of a Working Group on Diversity in the Biomedical Research Workforce, and charged it with developing concrete recommendations aimed at improving the recruitment and retention of underrepresented minorities.
Among other things, the group’s investigation found that “diversity is a key driver of achievement in the workforce, particularly when innovation is a critical goal,” according to its final report, released to the public in June 2012. The WGDBRW also found that only a small fraction of black applicants applied for grants in the basic sciences, and that similar funding disparities existed between 2006 and 2010. The working group made 13 recommendations that formed a comprehensive strategy to increase diversity in the biomedical research workforce.
One effect of the report was the NIH’s establishment of the Enhancing Diversity of the NIH-Funded Workforce program, which aims to attract individuals from all population sectors and train and mentor them to succeed in biomedical research careers, including careers in behavioral, clinical, and social science research.
“The nation’s population continues to become increasingly diverse and there is an urgent need to ensure that the scientific talent which is key to our nation’s success is nurtured, recognized, and supported across all demographic groups,” the NIH’s website reads.
At BC, the administrative headquarters of the network, Burgess’ team will coordinate the nation-wide initiative, as well as coordinate interactions with two other programs funded by the initiative, the Coordination and Evaluation Center and the Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity Imitative, and oversee the network’s fiscal situation.
Four other universities will serve as regional hubs, each overseeing a specific part of the initiative. According to the BC Chronicle, the University of Wisconsin will coordinate the mentor training; the University of North Texas Health Sciences Center will lead programs connecting mentors with mentees; the University of Minnesota will offer professional development services to mentees; and the Morehouse School of Medicine will coordinate the program at historically black colleges and universities. According the NIH’s website, the NRMN will develop best practices for mentoring, providing training opportunities for mentors, and providing networking and professional opportunities for mentees.
Featured Image by Daniel Lee / Heights Senior Staff