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University Groups Recommend Actions for Improving Diversity in Nation’s Biomedical Research Workforce

Washington, D.C.— To help university leaders address a lack of underrepresented minority scholars in the nation’s scientific workforce, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities (USU), and the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) today released a report proposing specific actions that would put vital evidence at their fingertips.

The report, Increasing Diversity in the Biomedical Research Workforce: Actions for Improving Evidence, notes that although many universities are undertaking initiatives to diversify talent, promising innovations may benefit from broader testing. Targeting key research gaps will contribute to a stronger evidence base for successful interventions, enabling universities to bring these strategies to scale and magnify their impact. Ultimately, having more rigorous scientific evidence will drive changes in the way universities do business, increasing investment in practices that work and phasing out those that do not.

APLU, USU and the AAMC collaborated on the report to develop a set of research actions for their networks of member institutions. All of the actions are focused on improving evidence for university strategies intended to diversify the scientific workforce. The proposed actions include pilot projects to test promising interventions, cross-institutional studies, and analysis of national datasets.

Some recommendations from the report include:

  • Adapt and pilot interventions for reducing stereotype threat, which have demonstrated success at the undergraduate level, for graduate students in STEM fields;
  • Evaluate the feasibility of using holistic review, an admissions strategy supported by data from the health professions, in doctoral program admissions in STEM fields; and
  • Examine the impact of programs designed to facilitate the transition of underrepresented graduate students into postdoctoral opportunities and, ultimately, the professoriate.

“This report is a key tool for institutions that are working to measure and bolster their diversity — and it will prove invaluable as they work to refine programs aiming to achieve such broad diversity,” said APLU President McPherson. “By strengthening evidence, it lays a solid foundation for building diverse campuses and, just important, a diverse scientific workforce.”

Diversity in the biomedical workforce is critical for conducting quality research that will enhance the nation’s competitiveness and result in equitable health outcomes. Studies across several disciplines have demonstrated that diverse teams are able to solve complex problems more quickly and effectively than homogenous ones. In health and biomedicine, a diverse workforce helps produce treatments and cures that are applicable to all patient populations while also enhancing patient satisfaction and trust.

Yet the current dearth of diversity in the scientific workforce limits the efficacy of research and treatment. According to recent data, only 8.5 percent of doctoral degrees were awarded to underrepresented individuals, and only 4 percent of postdoctoral scholars in STEM fields were from underrepresented groups. The lack of minority representation is concerning, especially since the United States is expected to become a majority-minority nation within the next few decades.

The working groups that produced the report were comprised of more than 70 experts across 28 universities and collectively developed the recommended actions for improving evidence. Members of the groups were nominated by their university presidents and chancellors, and included leaders of the institution’s research enterprise as well as content experts in areas such as organizational change, talent development, and recruitment.

The groups of experts reviewed existing evidence, validated the evidence through interviews with researchers in the field, and identified high-priority gaps in knowledge to address.

“We knew we couldn’t address every gap, but there were certain areas of low-hanging fruit where we felt targeted research across our universities could make a big difference,” said Caroline Whitacre, Senior Vice President for Research at The Ohio State University, who chaired one of the working groups on Leadership, Organizational Change, and Climate. “For example, many institutions are conducting some type of ‘diversity training’ but does it really work? How do we know which elements or delivery models are most effective? We need to be capturing these data.”

Once these key research gaps were identified the groups developed actions for improving scientific evidence – multi-institution studies, pilot projects to test promising interventions more broadly, or other large-scale collaborations – which were further prioritized by presidents and chancellors at the APLU Annual Meeting in November 2015.

Support for the project was provided by the office of the Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity (COSWD) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

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