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NIH Launches Effort to Boost Diversity of Biomedical Research Workforce

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced yesterday that it will pour up to $500 million over 10 years into an initiative to encourage more minority scientists to pursue research as a career and to bolster their chances of winning a grant.

The agency is responding to a study published in Science in 2011 that found that African American researchers are much less likely to receive grant funding from NIH than are white scientists with a similar research record. In June, a working group of NIH's Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) responded to the study by urging steps to get more minority students into the training pipeline, improve mentoring, and address possible bias in peer review.

To do that, NIH plans to launch a program of undergraduate scholarships and research experiences called Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD). It will give about 150 new undergraduate students per year (for total of 600 students) up to 2-year tuition scholarships, research experiences in summer and after college, and possibly graduate loan repayment, NIH deputy director Lawrence Tabak explained yesterday to ACD.

NIH already spends about $135 million a year on programs at institutions with highly diverse populations. BUILD, which will run alongside those programs, is more "holistic," Tabak says.

The program's "primary sites" will be institutions with less than $7.5 million a year in NIH research funding and a significant number of students on Pell grants, need-based federal scholarships. These institutions will form partnerships with research institutions at which the students can get lab experience. "The idea is to try to reach out to groups that traditionally don't have this opportunity," for example at community colleges, said NIH Director Francis Collins.

NIH will also launch a national mentoring network for young minority researchers. The agency will work to ensure fairness in peer review, for instance by exploring whether reviewers have unconscious racial biases and by pilot testing reviews of anonymized applications. NIH expects that the total costs, most of which will go to BUILD, will average roughly $50 million a year over 10 years and be funded from NIH's cross-institute Common Fund.

Reed Tuckson, executive vice president and chief of medical affairs of UnitedHealth Group who co-chaired the ACD working group on diversity with Tabak, praised NIH's response to "a heavy, laden issue" at time when the agency faces budget cuts. "There are some people who will perhaps say [the plan] didn't go far enough, … but this is a lot of money on the table at a time of unprecedented challenges for the NIH," Tuckson said.