Minority Serving Colleges and Universities Virtual Listening Session #2

Wednesday, January 12, 2022, 12:00pm-1:30pm 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 represent, work within, attend, or are otherwise connected to United States (U.S.) minority serving colleges and universities. The listening session, facilitated by an outside contractor, was attended by more than 100 participants. Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) at NIH, 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 stated that all facets of U.S. institutions and culture are influenced by structural racism and White supremacy. They expressed that achieving equity across the biomedical sciences will require committing resources and revising policies to actively support underrepresented minority (URM) researchers, URM populations, and minority serving institutions (MSIs). Points raised and underscored included that a more visibly diverse biomedical research community could help alleviate scientific racism and misinterpretations of findings related to racial and ethnic minority health, as well as increase trust and participation in clinical research. Participants also perceived that policy and reputational biases in favor of researchers from highly ranked institutions are among the causes of funding disparities between R1 universities (doctoral universities with very high research activity) and smaller MSIs. These biases at the institutional level have a disproportionately negative impact on the funding success of URM scientists.

  • Topic 2: Opportunities and challenges to racial and ethnic equity in career pathways – education, hiring and research opportunities

    The discussion centered on the adverse impacts of structural factors, including systemic racism, on racial and ethnic minority persons across the educational and career continua. Educational inequities in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs begin during grades K-12 and reduce the likelihood of racial and ethnic minority students in underserved school districts pursuing science-based careers. Participants noted the importance of early exposure to STEM programs among URM students and encouraged NIH funding mechanisms to support STEM programs in K-12 public schools, as well as programs at community colleges, to provide students with greater exposure to career options. Other systemic issues discussed, resulting in part from the lack of early science preparatory training, were the small proportions of URM faculty member role models, even at college and university-level MSIs. In addition, URM college and university students who attend MSIs perceived that White students are more likely than URM students to be selected as research assistants — a presumed reflection of widespread bias.

    The group also focused on challenges to career pathways and advancement opportunities among faculty members and trainees at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Researchers at HBCUs often experience systemic inequities in hiring, advancement, and obtaining NIH funding. One example echoed amongst attendees was the perceived “old boys club” that favors White male researchers in hiring and grant funding, and perpetuates biases against HBCUs scientists. Trainees at HBCUs and smaller MSIs are aware of the biased perceptions about these institutions, and as a result, educational and career transitions can be especially intimidating for URM students, postdoctoral fellows, and early-stage scientists. Needed are structured mentorship and programs that address these issues directly and provide appropriate support for effective navigation of such transitions.

  • Topic 3: Opportunities, needs, and challenges in addressing health disparities and healthcare equity

    The group identified several opportunities, challenges, and needs around addressing health disparities and increasing equity. Many colleges and universities have initiated diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, which include increased attention to health disparities and community-engaged research. Such initiatives represent an opportunity for positive change and reducing disparities, yet key concerns emerged. The challenges already experienced among MSIs in securing NIH funding for health disparities research may be exacerbated by increased competition with R1 universities and Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs). The group noted that large R1 institutions may approach this work inappropriately due to their lack of diversity, inexperience with health disparities research, and lack of familiarity with the targeted communities. They discussed the importance of having diverse research teams that integrate the perspectives of the community members and to support recruitment of participants. Another point raised and underscored was the need for researchers to include community partners early in the research design process and bridge gaps with community members who may be wary of research due to past unethical practices. Moreover, White researchers may not commit the time and resources to understand the racial and ethnic minority communities they study or develop sustainable partnerships with community members, leaders, and local advocacy groups.

  • Topic 4: Practices and policies as barriers to racial and ethnic equity

    Participants discussed ways in which NIH practices and policies can create funding barriers for researchers from MSIs. They described concerns that NIH review panels are insufficiently diverse and implicit bias adversely impacts scores. Participants highlighted the importance of grant funding that covers both direct and indirect research costs sufficiently, as these funds are needed at MSIs and small institutions to support the research teams and build sustainable projects. Often, MSIs must fund those elements themselves to meet the needs of research projects. They perceived that grant application requirements advantage R1 universities relative to smaller MSIs, demonstrated by the lower success rate among smaller institutions such as HBCUs. Moreover, the administrative resources and infrastructure needed to prepare applications, as well as to meet NIH funding and reporting deadlines may also disadvantage smaller MSIs.

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

    The group described actions and initiatives to raise visibility and enhance equity within their institutions. The examples centered on inter- and intra-institution/entity collaborations. One such collaboration was a partnership between an HBCU and a local health system to address issues around health disparities, which financially supported the HBCU’s research capacity, increased diversity of the research team, and enabled organized discussions and resource-sharing to improve community health. In a second example, faculty members at a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) facilitated discussions with their chancellor to gain clarity on the NIH grant reviewer selection process and encourage the institution to designate reviewers who will provide unbiased, informed review of URM researchers and HSI research efforts. A third example was a collaboration between the HHS Office of Minority Health and two universities on a project focusing on the health impacts of restoring AI/AN culture.

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

    Participants generated ideas to increase equity in the biomedical sciences. They encouraged changes in grant review processes and advocated for community-engaged research. They suggested that NIH adopt similar DEI initiatives to those underway at the National Science Foundation (NSF). They emphasized that grant review panels should include people who graduated from or are faculty members at MSIs and HBCUs, as they possess a strong understanding of the culture, practices, and barriers that affect URM researchers and racial and ethnic minority communities. NIH should provide robust education about MSIs, particularly smaller institutions, to all grant review panelists, regardless of race and ethnicity. Participants also suggested that NIH ensure that community-engaged researchers and those conducting community-based participatory research (CBPR) immerse themselves in the community of focus to understand and build trust with community leaders and members.

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 UNITE, please visit the UNITE events webpage at

This page last reviewed on June 15, 2022