Research Staff Virtual Listening Session

Thursday, January 27, 2022, 3:00pm-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 research assistants, associates, technicians, and other individuals who represent, work with, or are otherwise connected to the daily work involved in conducting research. The UNITE listening session, facilitated by an outside contractor, was attended by 90 participants. Dr. Rena D’Souza, the Director of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) at NIH, welcomed attendees and summarized the mission and goals of UNITE.

Summary of Discussion

  • Topic 1: Interests, needs, and issues regarding racial and ethnic equity in healthcare and biomedical sciences
    The group noted multiple barriers to racial and ethnic equity in healthcare and biomedical science. They discussed the lack of diversity (racial and ethnic, deaf or hearing impaired) on research teams, which prevent acknowledgment of, and true efforts to address, the actual healthcare needs and health challenges faced by populations with health disparities.

    They also expressed concerns that persons within racial and ethnic minority groups face difficulties in accessing quality healthcare and related resources. Biomedical science inequities were also noted during the session. The group pointed to longstanding practices that create challenges to obtaining NIH funding. Among the practices discussed were perceived biases during scientific review that negatively affect small research institutions with limited budgets and resources. These biases limit the success rates of underrepresented minority (URM) scientists who conduct research at these institutions and are seeking NIH funding. Participants also suggested that insufficient collection of demographic data as well as aggregation of racial and ethnic categories perpetuate inequities. They suggested the disaggregation of demographic data to better understand the state of health among specific racial and ethnic minority populations in the United States.
  • Topic 2: Opportunities and challenges to racial and ethnic equity in career pathways and within the workforce – education, hiring, and research opportunities
    The discussion centered on challenges to obtaining careers in biomedical research. Participants expressed concern that some hiring criteria for biomedical research assistant and associate positions may unfairly disadvantage racial and ethnic minority persons and inhibit entry into the scientific workforce. Almost all research support positions require a four-year college/university degree, which excludes strong candidates who have extensive research experience and on-the-job training but have not completed a four-year degree. Participants also noted that standardized exams such as the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test), the GRE (Graduate Record Examination), and the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) can create significant barriers among socially and economically disadvantaged people seeking research careers. High socioeconomic status (SES) families have the resources to provide students with a private school education and intensive preparation for these examinations, which increases the likelihood of admission to R1 institutions (doctoral universities with high research activity) compared with students from lower SES families. Participants highlighted that mentorship opportunities and greater visibility of URM scientists in leadership positions can support and inspire students to enter and advance in research careers.

    The group also discussed ways in which URM individuals, once hired in research positions, can continue to face inequities and cultural challenges in the workplace. Participants asserted that tokenism (making only a symbolic effort to recruit a small number of racial and ethnic minority persons to create the appearance of workforce diversity) is prevalent in institutional hiring practices. In addition, participants described the concept of URM faculty members and staff being “instrumentalized,” or used to increase diversity within their department or among the student body without being provided the level of support or resources needed to conduct research and advance their careers. Participants emphasized that multicultural and inclusive working environments facilitate URM faculty member and staff retention.
  • Topic 3: Opportunities, needs, and challenges in racial and ethnic health disparities and health equity research
    Participants  discussed the importance of involving community members and leaders as partners in community-based participatory research (CBPR). They suggested the practice of “bidirectional communication,” in which researchers and community members directly impacted by health disparities inform each other and, in the case of CBPR, work collaboratively to develop the questions and procedures that will be used in the research proposal. A specific concern raised and echoed by others was that health disparities research conducted in the absence of racial and ethnic minority researchers and/or community members may lead to gaps in understanding and missed opportunities. Participants emphasized that community members and leaders can improve research efforts and impact by contributing personal experiences, facilitating lines of communication with the community, identifying needs and opportunities, and enhancing community engagement in clinical trials.

    The group discussed the need for clarity and communication around how the community benefits from research initiatives. Bidirectional communication with engaged communities should continue after projects are completed by sharing data and findings, increasing transparency of information, and ensuring that local leaders and organizations have access to knowledge that could improve health outcomes. Ongoing communication with community leaders could help researchers better understand the relevance of the research conducted and challenges to reducing health disparities in the community after disseminating findings. Participants also indicated that community partners should be compensated for their support, time, effort, and important contributions.
  • Topic 4: Actions and initiatives to address racial and ethnic equity within your institution
    Participants shared the success of their institutions’ employee training programs and community engagement efforts to create antiracist cultures. They acknowledged that these programs have helped faculty members and staff consider how their own biases, stereotypes, and microaggressions adversely impact interpersonal interactions and the overall experience of racial and ethnic minority persons. Participants also discussed the importance of multicultural awareness and active antiracism efforts in healthcare and community engagement. For example, participants described specific initiatives to increase access to research information and resources, such as the translation of health-related resources into multiple languages and the hiring of culturally competent research recruitment specialists to engage communities that are often overlooked by research teams.
  • Topic 5: Proposed solutions for NIH tactics, actions, initiatives, policy, and engagement
    Participants offered recommendations to increase diversity and improve equity for URM researchers and the underserved communities engaged in research. They suggested that evaluating employment practices at NIH-funded institutions would incentivize inclusive hiring and promotion opportunities – which would in turn improve workforce diversity. Another recommendation was for NIH to publish data online that illustrates the distribution of NIH awards by race, ethnicity, gender, and other demographics.

    The group proposed solutions to increase support for community-engaged research and CBPR. Participants encouraged NIH to revise funding opportunity requirements to increase equity and inclusion. A highly endorsed suggestion was to institute a requirement that all grant applicants and reviewers articulate how the proposed research may impact the communities they engage. Participants also suggested that NIH allow investigators to allocate funds from the awarded grant to engage and provide educational opportunities for community members who contribute to – and could benefit from – the 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 UNITE, please visit the UNITE webpage at

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 27, 2022