Colleges and Universities Virtual Listening Session

Wednesday, December 1, 2021, 3:00-4:30pm ET

Brief Overview

The purposes of the listening session were to listen and learn about perspectives and experiences related to racial and ethnic equity in the biomedical research enterprise among individuals who represent, attend, work within, or are otherwise connected to U.S. colleges and universities. The listening session, facilitated by an outside contractor, was attended by more than 145 participants. Dr. Courtney Aklin, Acting NIH Associate Deputy Director, welcomed attendees and summarized the mission and goals of the UNITE initiative.

Summary of Discussion

Topic 1: The overall state of racial and ethnic equity in the biomedical sciences

  • Participants perceived disparities between institutions in terms of NIH research funding success and grant application scrutiny. Participants suggested that researchers at large, research universities receive grant funding more easily and frequently than researchers at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), Predominantly Black Institutions (PBIs), and other Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs). Some expressed concerns that MSIs (in general) are disadvantaged in the scientific review process due to less favorable evaluations of the research environment and ability to execute grants successfully. Participants suggested that NIH evaluate the distribution of awarded grants to institutions within different categories and reputations to assess whether a positive bias exists toward high-resourced, legacy research universities who submit grant applications.

Topic 2: Challenges to racial and ethnic equity in career pathways and within the workforce equity – education, hiring, and research opportunities

  • Participants indicated that students, postdoctoral fellows, and researchers from underrepresented groups would benefit from mentorship to navigate both career and grant opportunities. Participants expressed difficulties finding invested mentors, noting the importance of mentorship for help navigating academia, which can feel shrouded or inaccessible. However, positive mentorship experiences with underrepresented minority (URM) faculty members as research mentors were shared. Suggestions were made that NIH should initiate formalized mentorship programs for early-stage researchers and trainees focused on career building in the biomedical research enterprise and navigating the grant process to optimize successful proposals. Participants also emphasized that the often unstructured, decentralized nature of mentorship across institutions can make it difficult to maintain long-term mentor-mentee relationships, despite the importance of sustained mentorship in the early stages of a research career. A few participants also advocated for institutional recognition of service as a mentor, both formally and informally.

Topic 3: Practices and policies as barriers to racial and ethnic equity

  • Desire was expressed for increased transparency around the distribution of NIH-funded grants by institution characteristics (e.g., size) and investigator demographics. There were consistent perspectives indicating that in past grant applications, the reviewer critiques have seemed inconsistent, making it difficult to understand the rationale for the scores and funding decisions. Some participants mentioned concern about the NIH practice of relying on summary statements and the inability of investigators to resolve discrepant critiques within NIH. A few participants also expressed concern about implicit or explicit bias, socioeconomic privilege, and racism because of the required educational and professional research background information included as part of the grant application. They indicated that these factors are less relevant than the science proposed. Also noted, was that these biases could explain the difficulty that many URM researchers experience in the process of seeking NIH funding.

Topic 4: Challenges in racial and ethnic health disparities research

  • Participants perceived that researchers focusing on racial and ethnic minority groups and health disparities must over-explain and defend their research to study section reviewers to a greater degree than basic scientists. A few went on to express that it is difficult to convince reviewers of the significance and need of the work. Faculty members who participated in the session discussed the burden of conducting diversity, equity, and inclusion work for their institutions. Participants expressed concern about a perceived widespread opinion that among college and university faculty members, health disparities research is akin to community service or outreach rather than rigorous biomedical research. Additional concern was voiced that NIH’s propensity to fund and support basic science versus clinical and health disparities research limits both the biomedical research enterprise and funding committed to racial and ethnic minority populations.

Topic 5: Actions and initiatives to address racial and ethnic equity within your institution

  • Underrepresented minority scientists described their experiences serving in both faculty positions and incidental roles as diversity champions at their institutions. Colleges and universities with the means to lessen some faculty responsibilities and workload indirectly give them time to evaluate and adapt their processes to improve equity and increase diversity. Many institutions have initiated efforts to address racial equity, and there was an expressed desire for measurable progress.

Topic 6: Proposed solutions for NIH – actions, initiatives, policy, and engagement

  • Many of the participants who worked within university settings described their repeated lack of success in past grant submissions and difficulty identifying common themes to elucidate the reasons their proposals were not selected for funding. Some participants suggested that NIH implement processes to eliminate bias in decision-making by bolstering bias training for scientific review officers and program officers, implementing systemic oversight of study sections, and incorporating more diversity on review panels to broaden perspectives around the need and potential impact of the proposed research. Participants requested greater clarity in the NIH grant application process and pointed out that researchers may not be familiar with the NIH and federal policy terminology used throughout the grant application process. Participants stated that comprehensible grant application and review materials are important to provide early-stage researchers and faculty from HBCUs, MSIs, and institutions with fewer resources equal footing to earn support for their research.

NIH is grateful for the participation and perspectives provided by the wide variety of stakeholders in these listening sessions. For more information about past listening sessions, and to follow the efforts of the UNITE initiative, please view the UNITE events webpage at

This page last reviewed on April 22, 2022