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Historically Black Colleges and Universities Virtual Listening Session #2
Tuesday, January 11, 2022, 3:00pm-4:30pm ET
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, work in, are members of, or are otherwise connected to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The listening session, facilitated by an outside contractor, was attended by more than 130 participants. Dr. Richard J. Hodes, Director of the National Institute on Aging (NIA), welcomed attendees and summarized the mission and goals of UNITE.
Summary of Discussion
- Topic 1: The overall state of racial and ethnic equity in the biomedical sciences
Participants discussed the national emphasis on structural racism and inequities, which was attributed to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and other social injustices. They acknowledged that the focus on racial and ethnic equity has led to new NIH funding opportunities yet expressed skepticism about the commitment to this research in the long-term. Participants emphasized that HBCUs are well-positioned to conduct biomedical research in a range of fields. The group noted, however, that HBCUs are generally under-resourced and are less likely than predominantly White institutions (PWIs) to be awarded NIH funding.
The group discussed the positive role of HCBUs in advancing research conducted among racial and ethnic minority groups, who are often underrepresented in clinical research. Participants described challenges to recruiting these groups, specifically linguistic and cultural barriers to participation in clinical research. Materials (e.g., consent documents, recruitment flyers, and questionnaires) are rarely translated to meet the needs of non-native English speakers or are not culturally responsive. Participants asserted that more diverse language and culturally appropriate materials would bridge racial and ethnic gaps and increase participation. Moreover, the composition of the leadership, faculty members, and students at HBCUs, as well as their research interests and established service within underserved communities, would facilitate research to address health disparities and promote equity.
- Topic 2: Challenges to racial and ethnic equity in career pathways and within the workforce equity – education, hiring and research opportunities
Several challenges to racial and ethnic equity in career pathways and opportunities were discussed. Effective and culturally responsive mentoring is essential for successful biomedical research careers. Biomedical science trainees at HBCUs often experience difficulties in navigating their career options and plans to become early-stage investigators. Participants emphasized the need for consistent and supportive mentors to help students to maximize their potential and strengthen career pathways. Importantly, participants observed that mentors with similar backgrounds and lived experiences are more likely to understand the challenges that racial and ethnic minority students face. Needed are critical masses of diverse and well-established scientists and healthcare professionals in multiple settings across the biomedical research ecosystem, including at HBCUs.
Trainees and early-stage investigators are interested in seeking NIH funding for their scientific and career development efforts. Participants highlighted the importance of grant funding to facilitate access to research experiences and resources (e.g., lab experience, high quality research equipment) that enhance career development and readiness to conduct independent research. They also discussed a lack of awareness about training grant opportunities and/or how to access them.
Participants described inequities in research infrastructure between HBCUs, minority serving institutions (MSIs) and higher-resourced institutions. The discussion centered on the need for additional support to develop their infrastructure and capacity to provide research experiences to trainees. They indicated that grants requiring partnership(s) with an R1 college or university (a doctoral institution with very high research activity) often do not allow sufficient funding to purchase needed equipment or support research staff. Participants suggested that NIH should develop initiatives to support building infrastructure for biomedical science programs or to augment existing resources and research programs. Such grants would be instrumental in assisting HBCUs and MSIs with building and supporting research facilities needed to enhance training for underrepresented racial and ethnic minority students.
- Topic 3: Practices and policies as barriers to racial and ethnic equity
Participants focused on barriers to racial and ethnic equity that affect trainees. Implicit bias and racism were noted as factors embedded into the educational curriculum and within the behavior of faculty members in some college and university settings. These issues present barriers to educational equity and can prevent racial and ethnic minority students from pursuing or maintaining careers in biomedical science. Participants suggested that programmatic and policy changes are needed to counter structural barriers, particularly among Black or African American students interested in biomedical science pathways. Mentorship programs that facilitate connections to individuals with established commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are one strategy to help students manage experiences with bias and racism. Moreover, participants indicated that improving pathways for racial and ethnic minority trainees is also essential to address health disparities in meaningful ways.
- Topic 4: Challenges in racial and ethnic health disparities research
Participants discussed the challenge of limited funding for scientists at HBCUs seeking to conduct health disparities research. HBCUs are often trusted and respected institutions within their communities and are poised to address health disparities and promote equity in meaningful ways. Participants indicated, however, that large and PWIs are more likely to be awarded health disparities grants. Of concern was the observation that researchers at large institutions may shift their target population(s) simply to apply for health disparities research funding. In addition, these principal investigators (PIs) often lack the lived experiences, scientific expertise, and true community engagement needed for positive outcomes within the affected communities.
- Topic 5: Actions and initiatives to address racial and ethnic equity within your institution
Participants focused on efforts to build research capacity at their institutions. They have sought capacity-building grants to facilitate the research efforts of faculty members as well as create biomedical science experiences for trainees. They asserted that capacity is a prerequisite for increasing racial and ethnic equity in the biomedical sciences by attracting and retaining diverse faculty members and trainees. Capacity is also needed to provide a high-quality education for trainees at all points along the pathway. They noted, however, that sufficient time is needed to make a true impact and asserted that a 5-year (versus 2-year) funding period is optimal to build capacity.
- Topic 6: Proposed solutions for NIH – tactics, actions, initiatives, policy, and engagement
The discussion focused primarily on funding for capacity building, partnerships, and mentorship. Participants recommended that NIH conduct a historical analysis to review funding trends over time. The purposes would be to identify variations in grants awarded to HBCUs and MSIs across specified fiscal years and identify NIH policies and practices in place during periods of higher funding. NIH could then seek to isolate policies and practices that support these institutions and potentially re-institute them. Participants also encouraged the implementation or expansion of research partnerships between HBCUs and other organizations to increase both funding, capacity-building, and biomedical science training. Some participants acknowledged the positive impact that previous NIH training programs had on their career trajectories and suggested that new or additional programs should be developed to support workforce diversity.
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 visit the UNITE Events webpage at nih.gov/ending-structural-racism.
The opinions and perspectives presented in this summary reflect those of listening session participants, and do not necessarily reflect the perspectives or practices of the NIH.
This page last reviewed on October 26, 2022