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NIH’s new cluster hiring program aims to help schools attract diverse faculty

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is hoping universities will use a controversial—and largely untested—method of hiring junior faculty members to improve the diversity of the U.S. biomedical research workforce.

Last week, a top-level advisory group gave NIH officials the green light to launch a $241 million initiative called Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation (FIRST). The money, over 9 years, would go to help each of roughly a dozen universities and medical schools support a cluster of 10 or more newly hired young faculty members. A growing number of institutions are using cluster hiring to accelerate their capacity to do research in an emerging area, such as computational biology or nanofabrication, and a few of them have also used it to improve faculty diversity.

Not all of the 120 new hires would need to belong to groups now underrepresented in academic medicine, which include women, black people, Hispanics, Native Americans, and those with disabilities, says Hannah Valantine, NIH’s chief diversity officer. In fact, she told the Council of Councils at its 24 January meeting, any such restriction would be illegal and also run counter to the program’s goal of attracting world-class talent. But Valantine says every person hired must have a track record of working to change a culture that too often makes scientists from underrepresented groups feel unwelcome on campus and isolated in the laboratory.

Up from zero

FIRST is the latest in a series of programs NIH has launched since 2014 following a 2011 study that showed black scientists are less likely to receive an NIH award than their white or Asian counterparts. NIH has set itself the goal of eliminating that disparity, and Valantine hopes FIRST will take an important step in that direction by using an unorthodox approach to recruiting academic researchers.

Traditionally, universities recruit new faculty members one at a time, often to replace a departing faculty member with similar expertise. In cluster hiring, however, institutions often simultaneously advertise the availability of multiple positions, without specifying the specific field or academic rank.

At Emory University, cluster hiring has helped its college of arts and sciences triple the number of new faculty from underrepresented groups in the past 3 years, says Carla Freeman, the college’s senior associate dean of faculty. The approach lets the institution cast a much wider net, she says, and also improves the odds that a minority candidate will ultimately be hired.

“In a typical search,” Freeman explains, “we’d be lucky to get one or two minority candidates with the appropriate expertise. And even if they ended up being on the shortlist, the likelihood of their getting hired would be next to zero.... What we have learned statistically is that when only one woman or under-represented minority is among a candidate shortlist of three or four, the likelihood of hiring that one person becomes much slimmer."

With a cluster hire, Emory asks applicants to describe what they have done to foster diversity and uses their answers in deciding who deserves a closer look. Freeman says she is aware that such diversity statements “are controversial. … But they reveal a lot about the candidate.”

One recent “open rank, open field” competition for three positions, she notes, resulted in six hires, all from underrepresented groups. The university’s decision to double the number of slots was a testament to the exceptional talent among the pool of 1000 candidates, she says—as well as its willingness to invest the resources needed to bring them on board.

A climate for change

New faculty hires don’t come cheap. At Emory, a standard startup package for a new professor in the natural sciences or engineering exceeds $1 million, Freeman says. And Valantine says startup costs for a basic scientist with a wet lab at a medical school could run as high as $3 million. Minority scientists usually command a premium salary because they are in such high demand, Freeman notes.

The FIRST program won’t begin to cover all of those costs. “We expect the institution to provide the bulk of support,” Valantine says. “But NIH wants to have some skin in the game,” she adds.

NIH anticipates the initial support for each position will run for 3 years, long enough for the researcher to collect preliminary data that would help them win an NIH grant. Those who need more time will be able to receive another 2 years of bridge funding, she adds.

The FIRST grant will also fund activities to promote career advancement among the new hires, including one-on-one mentoring with a senior investigator, networking, and other forms of professional development. A third component of the award will go toward campuswide activities to promote what Valantine calls “the culture of diversity and inclusion.”

“Ultimately, it’s the institutional buy-in that will make the difference,” she asserts. “The idea is to create a climate in which they can succeed.”

Without such a climate, Valantine says, minority scientists can find themselves very isolated. “It is quite disconcerting and causes a lot of anxiety [to] find out they are often the only one” in their department, Valantine says.

That singular status also means they “are tapped for every committee under the sun,” Freeman says. Those additional duties, she notes, can make it harder for faculty from underrepresented groups to establish their labs, win a bread-and-butter NIH grant, and build a publication record that leads to tenure and, ultimately, a successful career in biomedical research.

“The pool exists”

Although council members unanimously endorsed the rationale behind FIRST, some worried that expecting institutions to commit to spending tens of millions of dollars to qualify for a FIRST grant could put universities with fewer resources—and smaller endowments—at a distinct disadvantage.

“I think there are relatively few institutions that would be able to do this,” said Jean Schaffer, a senior investigator at Harvard Medical School. “It’s not just startup packages. You also need to find [lab] space for [the new hires].”

Two ways to level the playing field, council members said, would be for NIH to allow several institutions to collaborate on a single proposal and to reduce the minimum size of a cluster hire. But a few members worried that it might still be hard to find enough suitable candidates.

Valantine seemed open to the idea of such partnerships among what she calls “underresourced institutions.” NIH might also be OK with hiring clusters of as small as five or six, she added. But she pushed back on the notion that there isn’t enough talent to choose from, and that institutions can’t accommodate such growth.

“It’s a myth that the pool doesn’t exist,” she said flatly. “It does exist.” As for the absolute size of a cluster, she said that officials from the Association of American Medical Colleges told her that their member institutions typically hire “40 to 50” faculty members a year and that roughly half of them pursue basic research. “So I think this is a [sufficient] cohort,” she said. “But we need to push them … to ensure that they use their hiring to enhance diversity.”

NIH’s intramural program has also dragged its feet, Valantine says, noting that in 2010 only 5% of its in-house scientists were from underrepresented groups. That low percentage is one reason NIH made cluster hiring the cornerstone of a new Distinguished Scholars Program it began in 2018, providing new intramural hires with a panoply of mentoring, networking, and professional development opportunities.

Valantine says the results to date demonstrate the value of cluster hiring. Women make up two-thirds of the 28 early-research scientists in the first two classes, she notes, and Hispanic and black scientists comprise nearly half of the total.

NIH officials hope that FIRST will also become a model for universities and medical schools with NIH-funded training programs, extending its influence far beyond the relatively small number of FIRST grantees. “This will make our current investment in training pay off in a way that it hasn’t until now,” says Walter Koroshetz, director of NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and a member of the steering committee for the FIRST initiative. “We need to make these cohorts feel part of the larger group” within the department and across campus, he adds. “They don’t feel that way now.”

Laying the groundwork

In grilling Valantine about FIRST before taking a vote, council members urged NIH to look for ways to assess whether those being hired under the program would face a welcoming or hostile culture. Kevin Johnson, chair of biomedical informatics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, likens it to “tilling the soil before you plant the seed.”

Johnson says he provides that service for the Harold Amos scholars, a nationwide program funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to help minority medical faculty gain their footing. When an Amos scholar feels their professional growth is being stifled by their surroundings, Johnson says, “we step in and move people around.” That intervention is necessary, he says, because a minority scientist at a majority institution may hesitate to act in their own best interests. “Maybe it’s a lack of perceived entitlement, or maybe they feel that whatever isn’t working out is their fault,” he says. “My role is to allow them to share that experience, and then help them pivot to what they want to do.”

Valantine acknowledges that NIH is entering uncharted waters in using cluster hiring as a tool to foster diversity. She calls FIRST a pilot program and says she expects institutions to propose various ways to bring new hires into the fold and promote diversity across campus. It’s an open question whether NIH should favor institutions that have already taken steps to diversify their faculty or those who acknowledge shortcomings but put forward a compelling plan to do better.

The scientific literature on cluster hiring is very thin. Freeman and administrators at a handful of other institutions provide anecdotal evidence of its value in fostering diversity, but there are no rigorous studies of how it compares to other approaches. Steven Brint, a sociologist at the University of California, Riverside, is looking at its impact on interdisciplinary collaborations, the most common goal for institutions that have tried it. And his preliminary findings on research productivity suggest cluster hiring may actually impede efforts to foster diversity.

“Overall, output increases for all researchers,” Brint says. “But the benefits are not evenly distributed. When we analyze the results by race and gender, our results suggest that senior scientists tend to benefit more from such hirings.” Not surprisingly, he adds, those senior scientists tend to be white men.

Brint agrees with Johnson that it’s not easy for an institution to make sure that newly hired female and minority scientists are offered “the same career trajectory” as their colleagues. “NIH will need to put a lot of thought into how these people are recruited, and whether they are in fact compatible with the organization they will be joining,” Brint says. “I’m not sure you can just engineer a solution that requires people to behave differently.”

Avoiding stigma

At Emory, Freeman says, those in the latest cluster hire have already begun to work as a team to promote the value of diversity in biomedical research. The group is meeting regularly with students and bringing in speakers to discuss both scientific and professional issues.

That’s exactly what Emory was hoping would happen, she notes. But such cohesion doesn’t mean they want to be known primarily for how they were recruited.

“I meet regularly with them,” she explains. “And one day they asked me, ‘Can we stop being referred to as the minority cluster?’ They prefer just to be seen as a member of our science faculty and part of the Emory community.”

Valantine says the demographics of the cohort itself is the best defense against such negative connotations. “That’s another reason we want the cohort to be diverse,” she told the council. “We want to avoid the stigma around programs that are focused on diversity.”

As with NIH’s other diversity initiatives, FIRST will also fund a team of researchers who will coordinate the activities of the other grantees and conduct a comprehensive evaluation of their programs. “We can’t follow a strict experimental design,” she says. “But we still want to find out what works, and why.”

*Clarification, 30 January, 6:11 p.m.: Comments by Carla Freeman have been expanded to clarify Emory University's hiring practices. 

*Correction, 4 February, 11:50 a.m.: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Steven Brint's name.