The NINDS is committed to the development and support of a neuroscience research workforce that engages the ideas, creativity, and innovation from all diverse backgrounds and segments of society. As a federal agency, this vision aligns with policies of open access and, perhaps equally important, makes sense as business case for our scientific enterprise, as well as the NIH research mission. We must leverage the entire U.S. intellectual capital as the American population becomes increasingly diverse. A diverse workforce results in higher-quality scientific research through greater innovation, creativity, and discovery (Nelson and Quick, 2012; Page, 2007).
NINDS seeks to promote diversity in all of its training and research programs, and to increase the participation of underrepresented groups. We accomplish this by recruiting and preparing underrepresented trainees; developing meaningful mentorship and connecting diverse individuals to supportive networks; and providing resources for retention and eliminating barriers for career transition. Specific funding opportunities exist for individuals from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, individuals with disabilities (defined as those with a physical or mental impairment), and individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds (applicable high school and undergraduate candidates). The diversity programs at NINDS include individual NRSA fellowships (F31), career development awards (K01, K22), and institutional program grants (R25) for neuroscientists across all career stages. NINDS encourages all eligible scientists to explore and apply for these opportunities, some of which are highlighted below.
Diversity Supplement Program – High School Through Early-Career Faculty
A program that spans high school students through early-career faculty members, the Research Supplements to Promote Diversity, provides administrative supplements to existing NIH research grants (R-, P-, U-, etc.) to support the work of diverse individuals. Supplements typically provide 2-3 years of funding while the supplementee gains research experience, preliminary data, and other requirements to develop an application for more traditional NIH funding opportunities. Our graduate and postdoc supplementees have better than average success rates for subsequent awards, like F31s, F32s, and K awards. An overwhelming majority of NINDS supported diverse trainees stay in biomedical workforce after training (94%). The majority of former supplementees remaining in biomedical workforce are either in academic research or teaching (49%) or science-related non-research (36%).
Growing the Pool – Early Research Exposure Opportunities
NINDS supports budding neuroscientists through institutional programs. Underrepresented high school or college students gain time in a lab during summer breaks via Summer Research Experience Programs. These Institutional programs are designed to help attract young students to careers in science, and provide opportunities for college students to gain valuable research experience in preparation for graduate school.
The Blueprint ENDURE Program (Enhancing Neuroscience Diversity through Undergraduate Research Education Experiences) is a collaborative effort through the NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research. It engages undergraduates from underrepresented groups in a two-year neuroscience research program during the academic and summer months, starting in sophomore or junior year. Six awards encompass 40 neuroscience institutions, including participant T32 partners, summer Institutions, and external advisors. Each student averages 1,700 research hours upon completion of the program, and currently 52 of 86 participants are in a graduate neuroscience program.
NINDS staff also participate in direct outreach to even younger students through activities like Brain-STEM, a partnership with the Maryland Prince George’s County Libraries to engage underrepresented students in neuroscience activities, and participating in the White House’s Week at the Labs.
Building Capacity and Mentoring Networks for Graduate and Postdoc
In addition to individual NRSA F31 diversity fellowships for diverse predoctoral students, NINDS funds institutional programs for underrepresented graduate and postdoctoral trainees. One such program, Neuroscience Scholars Program (NSP), has supported more than 550 trainees in neuroscience over its 30+ year history at the Society for Neuroscience. It provides peer support, social integration, and a focus on mentoring, professional development, and facilitating career transitions. From 2009-2015, 61% of participants have been women; 49% Hispanic/Latino; 30% Black/African-American; 2% Native American; 3% Pacific Islander; and 2% persons with disabilities. Seventy-six percent of NSP scholar alumni currently work in academia and eleven percent are full professors.
Support of Critical Career Transition Points for Postdoc and Junior Faculty
At each point on the academic ladder, diverse individuals are progressively more underrepresented. NINDS facilitates career transitions for diverse researchers through Mentored Career Development Awards (K awards), and institutional mentoring programs to provide professional development and support for postdoctoral researchers and/or junior faculty. Mentors of K awardees must help diverse individuals to navigate institutional expectations, scientific networks, and practices that are relevant to productivity and advancement at the institution. NINDS has two of these programs: the Diversity K22 Advanced Postdoctoral Career Transition Award and the Diversity K01 Faculty Development Award. The Diversity K22 award has two phases:
- an initial mentored postdoctoral training period for 2-3 years to facilitate the development of independence and,
- support during the early stages of a faculty position.
The K01 provides junior faculty protected time (up to 3 years), and resources for exploring innovative ideas, collecting preliminary data, and successfully attracting external research funds. The goal of the NINDS Diversity K22 and K01 is to diversify the pool of independent neuroscience research investigators and to enhance their probability of success in obtaining independent independent research support from NIH or elsewhere.
Training diverse scientists does not happen in a vacuum; educators and students alike are more likely to succeed if integrated into, and supported by, a network of individuals with similar goals. On April 11-12, NINDS hosted Forming a Neural Network R25 Grantee Meeting (813 kb) to establish a network of the NINDS and NIH Blueprint funded R25 diversity programs, facilitating alliances across high school to early stage faculty level. This is just one example of meetings that NINDS hosts to support our diverse grantees.
Additionally, NINDS’ commitment to increasing diversity and inclusion in science goes beyond specific funding opportunities to policies, outreach, and data collection and analysis. For example, NINDS recently released guidance on suitable plans for “appropriate representation” in conference grant (R13) applications and has prepared helpful suggestions for appropriate inclusion plans. This document is similar to an online diversity guidance and resource document for NINDS T32 programs (229 kb). We expect our funded programs and neuroscience training community to be accountable for ensuring programs include diverse trainees, and NINDS is willing to help by providing advice, resources, and connections to our diverse trainee networks.
Further, NINDS is interested in learning the reasons why neuroscientists make the myriad career choices they do. An overwhelming majority of NINDS diverse trainees supported by the supplement program stay in the biomedical enterprise (94%), but a significant proportion choose careers outside of academia. NINDS is developing a survey for current and recent neuroscience PhDs or MD/PhDs to explore factors that influence career decisions for both well-represented and underrepresented groups (to debut late summer 2016).
This survey is one of the exciting projects led by the NINDS Diversity Working Group (DWG). DWG membership includes the Institute Director, senior staff, program directors and program analysts representing every scientific portfolio as well as our policy and communications offices. This NINDS-wide group meets monthly to discuss and address issues related to the Institute’s diversity efforts. The efforts of the DWG has increased awareness of diversity at NINDS and helped to create an atmosphere of shared responsibility for inclusion and wider accountability for diversity outcomes.
These are just a few of the programs and strategies that NINDS employs to advance diversity in the neuroscience workforce. NINDS does not view diversity as a problem, but as a solution to help solving some of the difficult research questions within the NINDS scientific mission. We recognize that committed individual investigators, mentoring networks, and Institutions make a difference in neuroscience workforce diversity via our funded programs every day. We thank you for your partnership, and hope to expand the pool even further!
Please contact Michelle Jones-London, PhD, at NINDSDiversityTraining@ninds.nih.gov with any questions.