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HHMI Kickstarts $2 Billion Initiative to Boost Diversity in STEM

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute will invest the funds over 10 years across all stages of the STEM pipeline.

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Chloe Tenn

Chloe Tenn is a graduate of North Carolina State University, where she studied neurobiology, English, and forensic science. Fascinated by the intersection of science and society, she has written for...

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Nov 23, 2021

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Last month, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute announced it will invest $2 billion in an initiative to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM. The funds will be spent over the next decade on all stages of the science, technology, engineering, and medicine pipeline, from undergraduate education to tenured faculty and laboratory heads.

HHMI’s new initiative aims to change a historical lack of diversity in science and related fields. In 2019, Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans made up only 23 percent of the United States STEM workforce, compared to 30 percent of the general workforce, according to the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators. Part of the reason for the disparity may be that members of underrepresented groups with an interest in science are less likely to stay in the STEM career pipeline than are their white counterparts: according to a 2019 literature review published in Educational Researcher, more than 40 percent of white undergraduate students with an intended major in STEM graduated with a STEM degree, while only 29 percent of Hispanic and 22 percent of Black students with the same interest did so. A recent study published in Sociological Science warns that the pandemic could make matters worse: hires of Black, Hispanic, and Asian-American faculty declined disproportionately during the Great Recession of the late ’00s, the authors warn, and the COVID-19 crisis could have a similar effect.

HHMI, which employs around 300 scientists and describes itself as the “largest private biomedical institution” in the US, provides hundreds of millions of dollars in grant funding to more than 200 universities and spent more than $100 million toward science education in 2020. By earmarking $2 billion for STEM education over the next 10 years, the institute will significantly increase its spending on education.

HHMI outlined 10 goals it aims to meet through the new initiative, which include increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion among its sponsored trainees, investigators, and staff; fostering cultural change within HHMI; and collaborating with other organizations on “increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion in academic and research environments.”  

The HHMI commitment comes amidst other efforts to address disparities in science, including plans by the National Academies of Science to conduct a consensus study and create an expert panel to assess racial barriers in STEM, and a public call from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy for ideas on how to increase equity in STEM.

Alexis Stokes, the assistant dean for diversity, inclusion, and belonging at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, tells The Scientist she is excited that the additional funding will enable HHMI to scale up its diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) commitments, noting the organization is uniquely positioned to advance its goals. “They have that social capital and political capital to push these conversations forward.”

Supporting trainees, early career scientists, and institutions

The $2 billion will be applied across multiple existing HHMI programs that aim to boost representation in various career stages in STEM. The Gilliam Graduate Fellowship, which supports underrepresented graduate students with $53,000 per year for up to three years of their dissertation research and provides mentorship training for their advisors, will expanded from 45 fellows named in 2020 to 50 fellowships annually for the next decade. HHMI also pledged to select 25 new Hanna H. Gray fellows each year, an increase from the 21 members of underrepresented groups selected in 2020. Aimed at supporting postdocs and helping them transition to a faculty position, that program provides up to eight years of support for fellows.

I’m certain that there will be extraordinary impacts for the faculty and students and HHMI staff who will benefit from these streams of funding.

— Kelly Mack, Association of American Colleges and Universities

Leslie Vosshall, HHMI’s incoming vice-president and chief scientific officer, will be managing the Hanna H. Gray Fellows program, which comes with a $70,000 salary and $20,000 yearly expense allowance for two to four years of postdoctoral training and then $250,000 in research funding and $20,000 expense allowance for a maximum of four years for the new faculty member phase. “This commitment at [this] scale is completely unique,” Vosshall says, and it sends the message that “you’re just setting up your lab and we believe in you, and we will invest in you to get you kick started for some number of years.” Furthermore, HHMI plans to establish a new Early Career Scientist Program that will provide a salary and research funding for up to 125 independent science faculty researchers for a five-year term, and pair them with HHMI Investigators for mentorship and coaching.

Another major part of the initiative includes adding more than 200 higher education institutions to the Inclusive Excellence Program, which currently connects 57 universities in a network that participates in HHMI-sponsored meetings and receives strategy, assessment, and evaluation resources from HHMI to build inclusion and equity for science students. Additionally, HHMI is expanding the Driving Change Program that supports STEM learning at an undergraduate level, currently promising $500,000 grants to each of six partner institutions. HHMI aims to eventually support 24 universities under this program in providing support for students such as tuition funding, research exposure, internship experiences, and participation in professional meetings.

“I’m certain that there will be extraordinary impacts for the faculty and students and HHMI staff who will benefit from these streams of funding,” writes Kelly Mack, vice president for undergraduate STEM education at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, in an email to The Scientist.

HHMI seeks to close the gap between students in groups historically excluded from STEM and the majority of STEM students, as their rate of leaving the science education pipeline is twice than that of majority students, writes David Asai, senior director for science education at HHMI, in an email to The Scientist. To accomplish that, he says, undergraduate students need an accessible and engaging learning environment. Accordingly, HHMI will add 100 new higher education institutions to the Science Education Alliance, which currently has 200 colleges and universities offering undergraduate courses that include participation in HHMI-led research projects. According to research by Asai, evaluation of this educational course found benefits including persistence in STEM and a sense of belonging in the science community regardless of educational or socioeconomic background. For those students who were unable to experience research during their undergraduate career, HHMI plans to create a new post-baccalaureate program where recent graduates spend time in a research lab before moving forward with graduate school, Asai writes.

Creating culture change

In addition to supporting the education and training of underrepresented groups, HHMI aims to spur “culture change,” as Asai puts it, toward more inclusivity. To that end, HHMI is creating a professional development curriculum with the National Center for Principled Leadership & Research at the University of Illinois that will be required for all HHMI lab heads and lab members. In addition to this new program, Asai says, money will be also spent on a new Scientific Mentorship Initiative in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin’s Center for the Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research to create and deliver training on how to provide culturally aware mentorship to HHMI-affiliated scientists. This training will be mandatory for faculty advisers of HHMI-funded trainees as well as researchers who themselves are employed by or receive research funding from the organization.   

What does this actually look like when you commit an organization to be culturally equitable and to be accountable?

— Ann Austin, Michigan State University

HHMI also pledges to seek employee insights on how to improve workplace environments, reinforce inclusive behavior, provide connections between employees and senior leaders, and support community networks to create a sense of belonging among employees. In another step toward achieving culture change, the institute has promised to continually review and improve its hiring strategy in order to employ people of differing backgrounds at every level within HHMI. The institute also pledges equity and transparency in compensation.

“They’re taking a systemic approach to a complex problem. . . . We need to think about not just having people who represent diverse experiences and identities come in to the organization, but we need to support them while they are there,” says Ann Austin, interim dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University who is not affiliated with HHMI.

Overall, Austin calls HHMI’s new initiative “a very bold strategy” in creating a roadmap of organizational change, and says the commitment holds value in potentially inspiring other organizations involved in science. She adds she hopes an outcome will be to show “what does this actually look like when you commit an organization to be culturally equitable and to be accountable?”

Mack, who was previously part of an interdisciplinary panel of national experts HHMI enlisted to evaluate a previous inclusivity initiative led by Asai, echoes those sentiments, adding that HHMI’s mechanisms of evaluating its own progress—including regular, department-specific progress reports, annual performance reviews of HHMI leaders, and public sharing of employee data—are particularly worthy of emulation by other institutions. “The impact that I would most like to see is that the investment of HHMI brings the entire undergraduate science community to a collective pause, to really look at and appreciate the time, attention, thought, and self-critique processes that HHMI constructed and deployed to ensure that its investments are aligned with its organizational values for equity and quality in STEM.”

Measuring success and addressing challenges

Asai says that HHMI’s diversity goals will be quantified at least annually as numerical and demographic data, such as the number of students, colleges, and universities added to its programs. Ultimately, though, “inclusion is not a number, it’s a feeling of belonging,” he notes, and assessing qualitative outcomes such as inclusion, mentorship efficacy, and excellence will be more challenging. Asai says HHMI is currently engaging with experts around how best to do this.

Alongside the challenges posed by measurement, Stokes anticipates that there may be pushback during the initiative’s rollout, requiring people to have difficult conversations to unearth the roots of inequities. “We really do have to address this at every step of the academic path,” she says.

Similarly, Austin says that “these [DEI] challenges are deeply rooted in our whole society” and require both individuals and organizations to embrace new ways of thinking. “[M]aintaining the enthusiasm and the sense of vision and hope . . . is one of the biggest challenges in a project like this,” she adds. “It’s asking the rest of us [individuals and organizations outside HHMI] to have a vision that we care about and that we’re willing to work for.”

In Stokes’s view, HHMI is investing “exactly where the money needs to be spent. . . . We need to create a space where everyone has access and can thrive. We need to do this because it will advance science and help us solve the largest problems facing our society, but also because these communities have a right to thrive and succeed.”