The Scientific Approach

By Clifton A. Poodry It's time to apply our scientific thinking to designing diversity programs. Here's how. Despite our scientific training, when we think about ways to build a more diverse biomedical research workforce, we may base our ideas on sentiments and preconceptions rather than the best evidence. One way to avoid this is to approa

By | November 1, 2006

It's time to apply our scientific thinking to designing diversity programs. Here's how.

Despite our scientific training, when we think about ways to build a more diverse biomedical research workforce, we may base our ideas on sentiments and preconceptions rather than the best evidence. One way to avoid this is to approach the challenge of increasing diversity as a scientific problem.

The first step is to understand the scope of underrepresentation, which is discussed elsewhere in this supplement and in National Science Foundation reports. What's clear in that data is that achieving proportional representation among new PhDs in the sciences would require us to produce about 1,700 additional minority PhDs per year, and even at that rate it would take many years to achieve parity in the workforce.

National Institutes of Health undergraduate training programs at minority-serving institutions provide a total of 800 slots for juniors and seniors and should lead to 400 baccalaureate degrees per year. If every one of these students were to progress on to a science PhD, these programs would contribute significantly to diversity. But not all students given a supported research opportunity go on to a research career, and we can't assume that the NIH trainees who do go on to a PhD represent an increase above a historical baseline. Moreover, tracking individual participants, while valuable in many ways, will not tell us whether the effort increased absolute numbers.
Just as we publish our scientific results for others to scrutinize, evaluation and sharing of outcomes must be critical elements of our diversity strategies.

The second step is to build upon the work of others. There is a growing literature on the barriers that minorities and women face on their career paths, and also on how and why specific interventions succeed. But much of the literature is for specialists in various fields of psychology and sociology and needs to be critically reviewed and made more accessible to scientists in other fields who are interested in contributing to change.

Next, we must identify what each program is intended to achieve. All big problems such as cancer, heart disease, and AIDS must be attacked on multiple fronts by discrete but coordinated efforts. Underrepresentation is a similarly huge, complex problem, and it makes no more sense to expect that a single intervention - improving the research infrastructure at minority-serving institutions, for example - will solve it than it would for a single intervention to solve any of these other complex problems.

Then we need to identify multiple strategies with specific aims and milestones to use in measuring progress. Our planning must include estimating the extent to which we can improve outcomes by expanding the pool of potential minority researchers, as well as identifying and being more successful in retaining those already engaged.

In designing programs, it's important to recognize any assumptions we are making. For example, we assume that a problem is solvable, that talent is not limited to any group, and the skills needed to be a productive researcher are teachable. Also, we assume that exposing students to laboratory research will inspire them to consider research careers and motivate them to improve their overall academic preparation. And we might presuppose that students are ready for this exposure at a specific stage in their education as well as that most labs are willing and able to provide students with mentored experiences. Assumptions could also be made about the level of institutional involvement or the availability of resources.

Ideally, we would determine at the outset whether our assumptions are valid. If we can't be sure, we would need to take these uncertainties into account in designing programs and acknowledge them in discussing outcomes.

Just as we publish our scientific results for others to scrutinize, evaluation and sharing of outcomes must be critical elements of our diversity strategies. Thinking of evaluation in terms of accountability purposes can undermine it as an endeavor for understanding and self-improvement. Evaluation is made more challenging by the difficulty in understanding how the context of a particular program influences its success or failure. And how do we judge the "added value" of an intervention or the relationship between cause and effect? Selection bias and other variables must always be considered.

We also need to understand the efficacy of program components. This kind of assessment goes beyond the bounds of what is commonly considered evaluation, and its complexity presents us with additional challenges. While evaluation focuses on overall results, such as whether students involved in a particular program went on to receive PhD degrees, efficacy studies might attempt to tease apart the causal relationships between specific program elements and desired behavioral changes or skill acquisition.

We already have the tools we need to devise a productive approach to achieving diversity in the biomedical research workforce. The process should look much like our research approach to other big problems. We have ideas, we experiment, we collect and analyze data, and we share the results. We seek a diversity of ideas and we encourage thoughtful engagement. Fresh perspectives and skepticism are of as much value as longstanding involvement with the issue. We expect that our work will generate new insights and lead to significant progress.

The NIH has begun to work along these lines (see sidebar). However, efforts to develop the breadth of talent in this country are too important to be isolated in select offices or targeted programs. Inclusiveness and diversity matter, greatly, and every scientific program administrator, investigator, and grantee institution should be concerned with them.

Clifton A. Poodry directs the Division of Minority Opportunities in Research at the NIH's National Institute of General Medical Sciences.


Avatar of: Alan Bradbury

Alan Bradbury

Posts: 7

November 20, 2006

By 'diverity' we presume that what is meant is culrural diversity.\n\nTo be scientific, one has to adopt a culture which has been thrashed out within the hypercriticality of the scientific community - it is actually more monocultural that pluralistic.\n\nSecondly, to 'scientifically' study 'diversity', one must ascertain whether diversity of cultures are by any objective means, better at helping people and serving a public remit than uniculturalism does as it is. \n\nSo, you must 'scientifically' ascertain if this issue either really exists, and is not a political fiction, and secondly whether change in this political form, is effective and desirable.\n\nScience is an open process and some great 'truths' need to be challenged before they become 'scientific', and that includes both the alledged need for cultural change and the benefits it is alledged to bring.\n\nThank you. \n\n
Avatar of: Eric Seales PhD

Eric Seales PhD

Posts: 1

December 5, 2006

This article points out the underrepresentation in science of minorities and women. While these problems are well-known and in need of consideration, this article fails to recognize (or perhaps to acknowledge) the underlying harsh economic realities of a scientific career which are in fact the major contributors to driving women and minorities (as well as white men) away from this career field. I can explain this best by laying out the "career path of a scientist:\n\n1) Get good grades and enough money to go to a top-level undergad institution - TIME - 4 years\n\n2) Go to a top-level graduate school and get a PhD - TIME - averages 6-7 years; 70-80 hour work-weeks on a graduate stipend of about 20K/year...often in overpriced urban centers like San Francisco, New York, etc.\n\n3) academic post-doc - TIME - about 3-4 years; stipend or salary of about 35K/year; almost always involve moving to a new university in a different city; sometimes you get health insurance; you NEVER get retirement plans or benefits; 70-80 hor work weeks and tremendous pressure to build a publication record\n\n4) academic appointment - depending on the field, you have about a 10-20% chance of EVER getting a tenure-track appointment. IF you do, expect to work 80-90 hour weeks for years as you move up the tenure track. Grants are the main financial support, and each grant you write has only a 10-20% chance of being funded. If you A) get sick or injured for a few months or a year, B) you have a child, or C) anything goes wrong politically or with your research area, then you WILL NOT make tenure. This is because, for every faculty position opening up, there are usually 200-500 applicants...all qualified, many happy to work 100 hour weeks, and many who have chosen not to have spouses and families in order to "devote themselves" to a scientific career.\n\n4) Alternately, you might get an industry job...better pay and hours. However, industry still cannot absorb what has basically been a massive OVERPRODUCTION of PhD's in the last 20 years. \n\nPut the above points together, and you have a career that requires over a decade of advanced competive education, YEARS of low-paid, low-respect positions with laughable salaries and zero job security, and prospects of true success and job security that are, realistically, about 10%. Now, if you are smart and willing to work hard, here are some OTHER science-based careers you could choose besides becoming research scientist:\n\n1) physician - comparable education time and workload as scientists - average income - 200K or more per year; chance of job security if you finish med school- >90%\n\n2) pharmacists, veterinarians, optometrists - less education time than scientists, great job security and benefits, average salaries = 75-150K/year.\n\n3) Dentists, orthodontists - now we're talking big money - 200-500 K/year, same school time as scientists; 35-40 hour workweeks. \n\nThis is the REAL problem with science, and it is the REAL reason that America's women and racial minorities are not entering scence careers. The same factors that make the career terrible financially and personally for white men cause even more negative effects on women and minorities. For women, having a child/family is a LIABILITY in science because it means you can't live at your lab anymore. For minorities, the educational requirements and financial hardships which already push white males to personal breaking points are likely even worse because minorites really do often have less eduationalaccess and encouragement in K-12. Ditto for the financial burden of getting an adnvanced education.\n The irony is that science does in fact have an "ethnically-diverse" work-force. A close look on any research university campus reveals that 25-50% of the science work force are recent, mostly young male, immigrants from China, India, etc. Why is it that there are so few American Hispanics and blacks, but so many CHinese and Indians? The reason can be laid squarely at the feet of university faculty and the federal funding agencies that make their way of life possible (e.g. NIH). The career is so unattractive that American universities can no longer attract enough American students to fill their labor needs. Yes, I meant "LABOR" needs, NOT educational mission. So they "sponsor" foreign students desperate for green cards and the chance to get permanent jobs in AMerica. Basically, this amounts to a system of indentured servitude (look it up in the bears similarities to slavery) because these international scholars are A) far from home and unfamiliar with American standards of a "good job with good pay," B) forced to return to their home countries IMMEDIATELY if their job or schooling ends...a real good incentive to do everything your professor tells you to do (even unethical work hours) since \nyou are "back on the boat" if he gets tired of you, and C) the glut of foreign scientists can be used to create a "soft" labor market (i.e. - too many scientists for too few jobs) for American scientists. This only encourages more Americans (whites, minorities, women...everybody) to never enter this career in the first place, exacerbating the problem. \n\nIf agencies claiming to be "stewards" of this profession (e.g. - NSF) really wanted to help minorities and women become scientists, then they should take steps to make this career more attractive financially to American youth in general. I only chose this career because I love science. But I have sufferred years of hard work, career uncertainty, even relationship strife, as my college friends go on to make six-figure salaries in other professions and earn respect from society for their contributions. I can't tell you the number of times I've explained what I did for a living at a party, only to have someone turn their noses and say "but they don't make any money" or "I thought only foreigners did that." Its time to give this profession back the respect and place it once had in society. The NSF and other agencies should demand A) that universities stop exploiting postdocs and international scholars as a cheap, expendable labor force, B) that university graduate programs justify their existence in terms of producing graduates who actually get careers, C) that scientific research doesn't continue to depend on short-term survival from one grant to the next, and D) that this profession stops glorifiying the model of the lonely professors working themselves to death for a pittance, and E) that this profession rewards and welcomes those, especially young women, who (heaven forbid) choose to have spouses, children, hobbies, and a social life outside of work. Unless these things change, American science will die out (its already dying), and then the scientific research that has propelled this country to world dominance will become yet another commodity we must import from abroad.\n\nERic Seales, PhD

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