NIH Allocates $31-Million to Tackle Racial Gaps in Training

October 22, 2014

The National Institutes of Health on Wednesday awarded more than $31-million to a dozen university groups that will develop and test strategies for improving the racial diversity of the nation’s medical work force.

The lead universities receiving grants include some of the nation’s top institutions for training minority scientists. Their projects involve modifying enrollment processes, revamping undergraduate courses, and improving mentoring, among other efforts.

The NIH, the world’s leading financer of medical research, formally studied its diversity problem in 2011. It found the odds that a black scientist would win an NIH grant were 10 percentage points lower than those of a white scientist, and it promised to pour money into strategies to rectify that disparity.

Such findings "are of grave concern to NIH," its director, Francis S. Collins, said at a briefing outlining the awards.

The lead institutions are Boston College; California State University’s Long Beach and Northridge campuses; Morgan State, Portland State, and San Francisco State Universities; Xavier University of Louisiana; and the Universities of Alaska at Fairbanks, of Detroit Mercy, of Maryland-Baltimore County, and of Texas at El Paso. The University of California at Los Angeles will host a center for evaluating the success of the programs.

The NIH intentionally limited the awards to smaller-budget institutions with a history of training minority students, while expecting them to team up with a wide range of universities, Dr. Collins said. The agency hopes that improved educational approaches, such as earlier exposure to hands-on scientific experience, can cut the loss of minority students at the undergraduate level, he said.

"We believe that recruiting of individuals into careers in science is often predicated upon an opportunity to actually carry out scientific research in a meaningful way as an undergraduate," he said. "We are trying to create the opportunity for those experiences to happen."

Past attempts to improve racial diversity suffered because they didn’t come with systems for evaluating their success, Dr. Collins said. Specific measures of the new initiative’s success have not yet been set, and will be determined by the participating institutions, said Hannah A. Valantine, a professor of cardiovascular medicine at Stanford University who was named this year as the NIH’s first chief officer for scientific-work-force diversity.

The wide range of participating institutions should provide good data on what works, said Raynard S. Kington, a former NIH deputy director who is now president of Grinnell College. It’s a "good first step," he said. "Now comes the hard work of implementing and rigorously assessing to see what works best in which setting."

The NIH’s overall approach appears sound, said Donna K. Ginther, a professor of economics at the University of Kansas who led the 2011 study on behalf of the NIH. Yet the agency’s ability to make a meaningful change in the racial imbalance among medical researchers is likely to be limited, Ms. Ginther said, because the problem is complex and the disparities emerge "well before college."

"If you had all children graduating high school college- and career-ready, regardless of race and ethnicity," Ms. Ginther said, "a lot of the issues that we have at the undergraduate and Ph.D. level would eventually resolve themselves." But that’s largely outside the NIH’s authorized mission, she said.