NIH to fund initiatives to enhance diversity and inclusion among biomedical faculty

Dec. 23, 2020

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced it will provide support to institutions to recruit diverse groups or “cohorts” of early-stage research faculty and prepare them to thrive as NIH-funded researchers.

Progress has been made to increase participation of historically underrepresented groups in biomedical research training stages, however members of these groups are still less likely to be hired into positions as independently funded faculty researchers, according to previous studies.

These groups include underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, individuals with disabilities, individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds, and women. Two new funding announcements were released as part of the NIH Common Fund’s Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation (FIRST) program to enhance inclusive excellence at NIH-funded institutions.

Inclusive excellence has diversity and equity at its core, building inclusion into all organizational functions and establishing hallmarks for successful operationalization of inclusion. The FIRST program will provide funds for faculty recruitment and to establish inclusive environments at participating institutions to help those faculty succeed. The NIH Scientific Workforce Diversity office, directed by Acting Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity Marie A. Bernard, M.D., leads NIH’s effort to diversify the national biomedical science workforce and expand recruitment and retention. Its efforts and vision guided the development and implementation of the FIRST Common Fund program. The program’s estimated budget is $241 million over nine years, pending the availability of funds.

“There is an urgent need for culture change that creates a more inclusive environment in the biomedical research workforce,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. “The future of our enterprise rests on engaging highly talented researchers from all groups and preparing them to be successful. Diversity is the foundation that fuels creativity and innovation.”

Funding through the FIRST cohort awards will enable biomedical research institutions to hire a diverse cohort of early-stage research faculty committed to inclusive excellence and diversity. The program will also support development and strengthening of institution-wide approaches facilitating the success of cohort members and future faculty from a diversity of backgrounds. For the cohort members, this is likely to include mentoring, sponsorship, and networking opportunities. For the institutions, this may include training faculty in approaches known to foster inclusive excellence and changing the rubric for interviewing processes.

“Science thrives in inclusive workplaces. Underrepresentation of scientists from diverse population groups in the academic research setting is a challenge that we can help address now. The FIRST program aims to combat structural barriers by providing funding, mentoring, institutional buy-in, and a network of peers. NCI enthusiastically joins our colleagues to support and contribute to this important initiative,” said National Cancer Institute Director Norman E. “Ned” Sharpless, M.D.

The FIRST program will also fund a coordination and evaluation center, which will develop and guide collection of common data metrics to rigorously assess the effects of new faculty cohorts on institutional culture. Lessons learned by the hiring institutions, then captured and analyzed by the center, will be shared with the broader biomedical research community.

“This program, if successful, will help foster research environments attractive to underrepresented scientists, who can leverage their diverse perspectives and create relevant research to advance knowledge and discovery in their fields and reduce health disparities. Diversity in the biomedical research workforce promotes innovation, leads to better science, and creates opportunities to make significant progress toward health equity,” said National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities Director Eliseo J. Pérez-Stable, M.D.

The FIRST program is funded by the NIH Common Fund, whose programs are meant to dramatically affect biomedical research by achieving a set of high-impact goals within a defined time frame. By focusing on both recruitment and institutional support for faculty, the hope is for the FIRST program to provide evidence-backed strategies that significantly impact inclusive excellence within research environments and ultimately diversification of the biomedical research workforce.

The program is expected to fund 12 awards over the next three years, contingent upon the availability of funds. Applications for the Funding Opportunity Announcements are due March 1, 2021, with awards to be announced in 2021. Additional information, including important eligibility criteria for applicant institutions and organizations, can be found on the Common Fund's website.

NIH has the release.