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February 24, 2012 - ASM Comments on NIH RFI on Diversity in the Biomedical Research Workforce

Sally J. Rockey, Ph.D.
Deputy Director for Extramural Research
National Institutes of Health
Shannon Building,
1 Center Drive, Room 144
Bethesda, MD 20892

Re:  Request for Information (RFI): Input into the Deliberations of the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director Working Group on Diversity in the Biomedical Research Workforce 

Dear Dr. Rockey:

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) submitted input to the NIH RFI on Biomedical Research Training, which included comments on the lack of underrepresented minority participation in the biomedical workforce and issues that we believe contribute to this lack of representation.  We appreciate the opportunity to provide input to the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director Working Group on Diversity in the Biomedical Research Workforce.  The ASM comments on the Biomedical Research Training RFI are available by clicking here and we recommend that the Diversity Working Group review these comments as well as the following comments which are specifically focused on diversity in the biomedical research workforce.

The ASM has a long history of addressing the disparity in the representation of underrepresented minorities in the microbiological biomedical research work force and strongly believes that professional organizations have an obligation to mitigate this disparity.  As early as 1984, the Society established the Committee on the Status of Minority Microbiologists, renamed the Committee on Microbiological Issues Impacting Minorities (CMIIM) in 2003.  One of CMIIM’s roles has been to address the underrepresentation of underrepresented minorities in the microbiological sciences and in the ASM and to develop recommendations and programs to increase participation. The comments presented here are based on the observations and recommendations of the CMIIM.

Comment 1 - For any of the areas identified and any other specific areas you believe are worthy of consideration by the working group, please identify the critical issues(s) and impact(s) on institutions, scientists, or both.

Biomedical Research Force Pipeline

Middle School - Though not addressed in the RFI, the NIH should establish, strengthen and support programs as early as middle school to introduce young people to the biomedical sciences.  These might take the form of supporting programs that provide hands on science experiments, web-based curricula, classroom visits by role models, trips to science museums, engaging students in science fair projects, lab experiences for teachers, etc.  An important component of these activities should focus on the ability of students to describe their experiences both by oral and written communication. 

NIH must take into consideration that a majority of disciplines sponsor programs to interest youth in specific careers, beginning at the middle school level.  Therefore, the biomedical research arena must engage in creative, exciting, meaningful and culturally appropriate programs that will attract students at this level.  In addition to merely attraction, students will be able to identify and begin taking the necessary courses that will prepare them for college.  This is especially true among some underrepresented minorities and individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds where family members and friends don’t have the educational backgrounds to guide them in pursuing important precollege courses in science and math.  A primary issue in underrepresented minority performance at the precollege, undergraduate and graduate levels is poor academic preparation; and activities to address educational preparation should begin early.

High School - Programs should proceed into the high school years where students have the opportunity to work in research labs and engage in all phases of the research training process.  For example, activities directed at the high school student such as interaction with other high school research students, age/education appropriate seminars, related cultural activities (e.g., the NIH Cinema Series), assignment to a mentor, and presentations on college selection, study skills, college and financial aid application processes, etc.  Again and for the reasons cited in the aforementioned paragraph, these students may not have the opportunity to receive these activities from their homes nor from the inadequate resources of their public secondary schools.  An important pipeline resource for underrepresented and disadvantaged high school students are the specialized public high schools of science, math and technology http://www.ncsssmst.org/institutionalmembers.aspx .  Publically supported, these schools have strict academic entrance requirements and a mandate to increase and maintain diversity.

Undergraduate - At the undergraduate level programs should continue as they are currently supported by the NIH.  However, there should be more emphasis on activities to increase student’s scientific writing skills for manuscript and proposal writing.  NIH should require these kinds of workshops at their annually supported ABRCMS, BKX/NIS, SACNAS, etc. meetings and within the undergraduate supported programs.

Graduate School and Beyond - Graduate and Postdoctoral programs should include enhanced activities in proposal and manuscript writing.  No graduate or postdoctoral fellow should graduate/leave a program without publications.  This should be the responsibility of the PIs/mentor; and if this does not occur, the mentors/PIs should be penalized.

It appears that NIH programs have had some success in increased underrepresented minority enrollments into graduate programs, but the problem has been with successful trainee productivity and/or movement into bench research positions for which they have been trained.  It appears that three factors have contributed to the latter – (a) the increased length in time to degree and the increased time and number of postdoctoral appointments, which have become common,  (b) the lack of job opportunities and low entrance salaries at the postdoc level and beyond, and (c) poor mentoring.  As a result, many underrepresented minorities begin to observe these trends midway through their training and have decided to merely graduate and look at other career options.  Thus, they don’t see the need to work hard at getting publications and to enter postdoctoral training.

Beyond graduate and postdoctoral programs, the ability of trainees and junior faculty to become successful and enjoy sustained success is, again, strongly dependent on an involved mentor.  Clearly, in previous years, a small fraction has found success without this assistance, but this has required monumental effort.  Unfortunately, other disciplines and those closely related to the biomedical fields have changed, but not biomedical research training.

The successful training of underrepresented groups in biomedical research can often be predicted by viewing the productivity of the mentor.  Thus, a higher standard must be expected and enforced by the NIH.  Also, PIs should be aware that the NIH is expecting to see that PIs are actively mentoring and preparing underrepresented minorities, not merely using them as lab technicians. 

NIH Support of Alternate Career Paths

Much discussion has centered on “alternate careers” and this has surfaced simultaneously with the lack of available bench research positions for which underrepresented minorities and others have been trained.  Consequently, many underrepresented Ph.D. recipients enter jobs in directing science education and/or minority recruitment programs, entry level policy positions, scientific writing positions, laboratory managers, etc. for which they are overly qualified. The NIH should clearly define whether it is in its mission is to train for traditional (bench research) Ph.D. research careers followed by postdoctoral training and to train for direct entrance into alternative careers.  If training for direct entrance into alternative careers is within its mission, NIH should consider developing M.S. type programs, certificate programs and/or programs that don’t require rigorous bench predoctoral and postdoctoral research training.   Additionally, opportunities for students who decide to opt out of the traditional Ph.D. training programs should be made early in their matriculation.  This will enable them to quickly move into a more satisfying career option.

Success in receiving funding and RO1 support

Successful funding is dependent on several factors which include research topic, publication record, institutional (or access to) intellectual and infrastructure resources, grantsmanship,  professional  associations and networking opportunities, service on related committees and advisory groups  and characteristics of the peer review/study section committee.  Success with all of these factors can be initiated and enhanced by the availability of a good and appropriate mentor.

The peer review process may also have a negative impact on an otherwise potentially successful applicant.  Situations where the applicant is not known by the reviewers, the applicant is from a less prestigious institution, the applicant was trained at a less prestigious institution, or when the applicant’s mentor is not well known, can all lead to instinctive negative unfairness.  Thus, the NIH might instruct reviewers to take note of these possible prejudicial circumstances.  It may also be of value to attempt to ensure that the committee is representative of reviewers from a cross section of institutions, if possible.

Of note is the following from ASM’s previous opportunity to comment –

“While many programs have had increased successes in recruiting URM because of NIH funded programs geared toward increasing the participation of these groups, the ability of training programs to produce RO1 eligible and successful PIs has been extremely limited. I personally believe this has been because of inadequate mentoring (students graduating without publications or a publication where they are tucked in with a group of 5-10 co-authors; the lack of acceptance of URM into viable research teams, continuing overall “feelings” of discrimination and a general lack of support by too many PIs) and students being burned out because of the lack of job prospects (which early in their training they’d assumed to be available) which subsequently has resulted in a lack of enthusiastic pursuit. In general their post graduation and postdoctoral jobs do not qualify them for jobs where they will be RO1 eligible. I’ve made these observations over the years and when I was invited to participate in a retreat for underrepresented minority biomedical predoctoral students at a prestigious University this past spring, the majority of the latter was evident and students were thinking about pursuing alternate careers. Furthermore, I have received similar sentiments from graduate and/or postdoctoral trainees at other academic institutions and/or government agencies. On the other hand, a recent URM male graduate from a prestigious university who had excellent mentoring and an exemplary publishing record has chosen a “policy” position and has delayed seeking a postdoctoral position. The reason – his predoctoral training was much too long, he is “burned out” and refuses to enter a “long” postdoctoral position.”

Mentoring Programs

Mentoring programs are essential at all areas of the pipeline, but become more critical once graduate training begins.  This is very common information, but it appears as if all do not understand how to mentor and/or do not realize that individuals under their tutelage are lacking mentoring.  Thus, NIH should consider having required mentoring workshops for all individuals who train NIH supported trainees.  This could take the form of “training the trainer” where representatives receive NIH directed mentor training and the representative returns to their institutions to train others.

The role of good mentoring is critical in all phases of the pipeline, in particular beginning with undergraduate students.  If grantees fail to have successful mentoring programs as evidenced by the profiles of graduates, they should be penalized.

Length of Training Programs

NIH should revisit the controversy about the length of training programs.  Though NIH reported that responses to a 2011 RFI revealed that this was not an issue among PIs, this attitude does not appear to be representative.   Many believe that training programs (both predoc and postdoc) are too long. Shorter periods were previously satisfactory and consequently some of the top scientists who benefitted from these shorter periods are very productive today. To say that research has become more complex should also include that the technologies to answer questions have become more precise and data can be obtained and analyzed more quickly. Additionally, much research is being accomplished through collaborations, which provide for quicker and more precise data. If anything, the periods should be shorter, given the advances in instrumentation and intellectual knowledge.  The length of training programs together with the lack of job opportunities are becoming major deterrents to underrepresented groups completing and entering biomedical research training programs.

Enhance Collaborations with Professional Societies to Address Issue    

NIH already supports a number of broad spectrum activities managed by professional societies to increase diversity.  They include support for conferences, travel awards to attend and present at conferences, society mentoring programs for undergraduate students, workshops, summer research programs for high school and undergraduate students, etc.  NIH might consider funding a more intense mentoring program that could pair tenure track and junior faculty with more senior and established faculty from a different institution.         

Biomedical Research Workforce Demand                                             

Currently, all indications suggest that less Ph.D. biomedical researchers are produced than are required.  If not available, NIH should accumulate data to demonstrate future year needs.  Since biomedical researchers are working longer years than previously, information on their working life span should be included in order that accurate data are presented.  With these data, clear and realistic needs can be presented and will help in ensuring that individuals have the opportunity to make good and reliable career choices of which jobs will be available.

Quality of Graduate Students

In a previous ASM query, responses from microbiology training programs around the country indicated that PIs believed the academic quality of entering graduates students has decreased.  This is not surprising given our country’s overall performance ranking on international science and math tests.  Clearly the increased recruitment of diverse populations, e.g., underrepresented minorities, women, persons with disabilities, persons from disadvantaged backgrounds and the inability of some of these populations to participate in early and rigorous precollege science and math coursework contributes to this low performance.  Also, the lack of parental and mentoring support, inadequate financial resources, cultural attitudes and family responsibilities could individually and collectively contribute to either population’s poor performance.  It is perceived that these factors might not have had the same impact on the majority of a small homogenous group of select students from 50 – 100 years ago.  With this in mind, NIH must assume the leadership role with other similar agencies, academic institutions and the private sector to include professional organizations to ensure that students who exhibit early academic abilities and interest in science and math are nurtured up the pipeline.  Without the latter, the US will be unable to meet the biomedical research needs of its citizenry.

Comment 2 - Please identify and explain which of the issues you identified are, in your opinion, the most important for the working group to address and why.

While all of these issues are crucial, the most important might include the following:

  1. Ensuring that when trainees are recruited into NIH supported programs that they have sufficient mentoring opportunities and that the rigorous training they receive enable them to secure meaningful career positions that closely mirror their training.  This means that they publish in high impact journals, get to meet the top scientists in their respective fields, learn how to write research proposals and where appropriate (especially with postdocs) given the opportunity to serve on national and local subject matter committees and present at higher leveled meetings.
  2. Developing required mentoring training programs for PIs/Mentors with subsequent metrics to ensure favorable outcomes.
  3. Consider providing alternative training for underrepresented minorities and others to pursue “alternate” career options (M.S. or certification programs).  Not all students will choose to invest time into pursuing a traditional training degree but might be very enthusiastic about pursuing other career options that lead to a well-paying job but does not require 6-10 years of advanced training.  Furthermore, these “alternate” career paths will be those that will support biomedical research.  This type of training should be by individuals who have the appropriate training, not by PIs of training or research grants.
  4. Identifying a mechanism where PIs/mentors are held accountable for ensuring that trainees publish, engage in professional society activities, learn the art of grantsmanship, have opportunities to serve on national committees and advisory boards. Success in producing underrepresented minorities who are successful RO1 bench scientist should be a critical outcome measurement in determining whether an existing training program is eligible for further NIH funding.
  5. Ensuring that the study section/review committees include reviewers who are fair, impartial and are affiliated with a diverse group of institutions.
  6. Expanding the scope of the Loan Repayment Program to help recruit more underrepresented trainees and successfully requesting increased RO1 funding.  Overall, the difficulty in securing funding is driving many scientists out of research and making it extremely difficult to secure tenure (thus having a negative impact on underrepresented minority career choice and success).  Furthermore, the pay lines for funding RO1s are not equal across institutes and this is very discouraging to many.

Comment 3 - Please comment on any specific ways you believe these or other issues would or should affect NIH policies or processes.

Addressing these issues would

(a)    ensure a well-trained biomedical workforce to meet the demands of our country and the global society;

(b)   enhance the diversity of the U.S. workforce;

(c)    increase the R01 success rate of underrepresented groups;

(d)   ensure the U.S.’s global competitiveness;

(e)    attract the best and brightest and ensure individual personal satisfaction; and

(f)    determine whether training for direct entry into alternative careers is an NIH objective and develop training programs that best meet the needs of these career aspirants


These observations, comments and recommendations represent nontraditional NIH approaches to training the biomedical workforce.  Accordingly, and given the many challenges that face the NIH in meeting its training mission, a significant expenditure of money, time and creative efforts will be required to ensure the availability of a continuing biomedical workforce to meet the needs of the American people.  It is clear that many of the comments included in this document are not unique to underrepresented groups; and, in many ways, a majority of all trainees may be impacted by many of these factors. Thus, the NIH must provide the leadership and support in engaging similar federal agencies, academic institutions and the private sector to include professional organizations to ensure the availability of a continuing biomedical research workforce.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment.


Roberto Kolter, Ph.D., Chair, Public and Scientific Affairs Board
Marian Johnson-Thompson, Ph.D., Chair, Committee on Microbiological Issues Impacting Minorities
Gail H. Cassell, Ph.D., Chair, Committee on Biomedical Research