Summary

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) Virtual Listening Session #1

Thursday, December 2, 2021, 1:00-2:30pm 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 lead, attend, work in, or are otherwise connected to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The UNITE listening session, facilitated by an outside contractor, was attended by more than 50 participants. Dr. Monica Webb Hooper, Deputy Director of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) at NIH, 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 described several challenges and inequities in the biomedical sciences experienced by HBCUs. Among the challenges noted were the disparities in grant funding among underrepresented minority (URM) investigators despite high interest and multiple efforts to seek NIH support. Participants noted that many HBCUs lack the research infrastructure and support to be competitive in the NIH grant application process. They also emphasized the importance of HBCU faculty member representation in biomedical science training and capacity-building programs, which could increase diversity in the biomedical science fields and increase research funding to URM faculty members at Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs). Participants expressed concerns about the power differential created when HBCU investigators are involved via subcontracts to NIH-funded projects that have been awarded to larger, Predominately White Institutions (PWIs). This power differential limits the ability of these investigators to utilize the funding as they deem necessary. To address the associated inequities, participants suggested that NIH should increase the level of direct funding to HBCU investigators, thereby facilitating their contributions to high impact science. Participants discussed the importance of increasing equity in the biomedical sciences to address the health needs of racial and ethnic minority and other underserved communities. They described the disproportionate impact of global disasters, including climate change and the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, on disadvantaged communities and HBCUs. Among the points raised was that insufficient attention to climate change and natural disasters in affected geographic regions has the potential to further exacerbate inequities. Participants highlighted the need to focus on these issues as well as long-term systemic changes needed to improve health and socioeconomic equity.

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

  • Participants stated that achieving equity across research institutions requires NIH to allocate more resources toward the infrastructure of HBCUs and MSIs. Doing so would enhance the competitiveness of these institutions to attract and support talented trainees and scientists. Participants indicated that many HBCUs provide less than optimal startup packages for new faculty members, which has negative impacts on recruitment and retention, as well as research productivity and achieving tenure. As a result, smaller, less resourced universities are unable to build the critical mass of faculty members needed to secure research funding. Racial and ethnic inequities in available resources were noted as disincentives for trainees to pursue academic careers. Participants highlighted the need for grants that include sufficient funds to hire additional URM investigators, as well as the need for opportunities for early-stage researchers to build relationships and networks, which are critical in increasing diverse representation and leadership in the biomedical sciences. Participants suggested that NIH should collect and track data on these challenges to inform areas of need for HBCUs and MSIs.

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

  • The primary barriers discussed included the complicated NIH grant application process, as well as perceived biases in the review process. Participants highlighted the importance of mentorship to bridge the funding gap and provide technical assistance on navigating the application process and obtaining grants. They also perceived that review biases against selected topics and researchers who have not received funding previously may be elevated for faculty members at HBCUs and smaller colleges and universities. Participants believe that blind evaluation of grant applications (i.e., no identifying individual or institutional information) could help eliminate bias based on applicant demographic or institution factors in the review process.

Topic 4: Challenges in racial and ethnic health disparities research

  • Participants expressed the importance of institutional outreach and resources to support science conducted among racial and ethnic minority groups and underserved communities to achieve lasting equity. Participants stated that increased diversity on NIH grant review panels would help amplify the needs of disadvantaged groups and the importance of the proposed science. They asserted that resolving racial and ethnic health disparities requires URM researchers to speak up about biases they observe in the review process. Participants also shared that the greater resources and funding accessible to larger institutions causes inherent bias in favor of R1 universities (doctoral universities with very high research activity) and limits opportunities for HBCUs to conduct research on minority health and health equity. Participants also discussed funding barriers to sustainable health disparities research. Long-term funding periods that exceed five-years would better enable teams to conduct community-engaged research, as the current funding levels often prevent researchers at MSIs from working with communities to provide meaningful and sustainable findings.

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

  • Participants discussed experimental research initiatives at their institutions to improve community-based participatory research (CBPR). Effective CBPR and other community-engaged research approaches often require significantly more time than other research designs. Participants shared that their institutions have leveraged state funding and funding from NIH institutes, such as the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), to introduce pilot programs examining the efficacy of longer timelines for CBPR. They asserted that extended funding timelines have the potential to increase effective community engagement, trial execution, and the dissemination of research findings. Researchers involved in these pilot programs have also documented the infrastructure and wide range of community collaborators that have been involved, which contributes to the body of knowledge, and the ability to share best practices for community engagement.

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

  • Participants asserted that NIH should provide additional outreach, support, and funding for HBCUs, who are more likely to serve racial and ethnic minority groups and socioeconomically disadvantaged communities. This would include support for mentorship programs and establishing or connecting with research-based networks. Participants recommended that NIH conduct a formal funding analysis to examine inequities in funding among HBCUs and smaller colleges and universities, which would be followed by initiatives to reduce any identified disparities. Participants also recommended mentoring programs for researchers at R1 institutions to support and mentor those at non-R1 institutions to create tailored and sustainable impact for smaller biomedical research programs. Participants recommended increased funding and support for HBCUs to conduct community-engaged research with higher direct costs limits and extended project timelines. Participants suggested that these grants should require partnership-building with community leaders and other constituents, greater funding for community partners, and appropriate participant compensation. Participants also observed the need for more research in rural communities and suggested facilitating networks of faculty members from various colleges and universities to discuss best practices. Finally, they suggested that NIH should provide a forum for HBCU faculty, students, and research staff to highlight the value and impact of research programs at these institutions.

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 nih.gov/ending-structural-racism.

This page last reviewed on April 27, 2022