Q&A: Unique Circumstances for Minority Scientists During COVID-19

Investigators from underrepresented groups have borne the brunt of the disruption to science from the pandemic, according to an opinion piece that outlines ways in which institutions can lessen the damage.

Asher Jones
Mar 10, 2021

Hiring freezes, cancelled conferences, lab closures, and greater childcare demands during the COVID-19 pandemic have stymied research and stalled scientists’ careers. And underrepresented minority researchers have been hit particularly hard, according to a perspective piece published today (March 10) in Science Translational Medicine

The Scientist spoke with Rotonya Carr, a hepatologist and liver disease researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine and a coauthor of the article, to learn about the disparities that underrepresented minority scientists experience and the steps that institutions can take to support research programs and retain investigators during the pandemic.

The Scientist: What was the motivation for writing this paper?

Rotonya Carr: The coauthors and I are a group of underrepresented minority researchers who get together on a monthly or bimonthly basis, even pre-COVID, to talk about how things are going with our research programs and to be a support network for one another. We met after the lab shutdowns during the pandemic last spring and realized that we were all experiencing the same challenges with our research programs, and were very worried about the sustainability of our programs amidst the shutdown. . . . Even though we had different types of research programs, we were all experiencing similar concerns. 

We decided to take a constructive approach to ensure that our research programs and the research programs of many colleagues throughout the university could withstand the lab shutdowns. After that, we met with some leaders within the university to talk about what we thought were important steps the university should take to ensure that our research programs would survive, and we decided to write about our ideas and experiences.

TS: How has the pandemic impacted research?

RC: There have been many effects of the pandemic on research broadly, and specifically within academic medical centers. We think about the impact in terms of the actual researchers who are performing the research and also the pipeline of future researchers. There have been impacts on research operations and the resources that we have available to us, and there have been impacts also on our ability as academic researchers to have career advancement. 

Rotonya Carr
PENN MEDICINE

To take a little step back, career development for academic researchers really relies on publications and getting invitations to present your work, applying for grants, and successfully being awarded grants. With research shutdowns, we’re not traveling to conferences to share our work, we’re not able to accrue data so that we can publish, and we’re not able to develop enough data to apply for grants. And all of these have effects not only on our ability to advance within our career and do the science that we all want to do, but it also has greater impact on our ability to help the very people we went into research to help—our patients, in the case of academic medical centers. 

We all learned during the COVID pandemic that science is so critical. Unfortunately, having to move a lot of resources toward the clinical mission—and necessarily so—the research mission really suffered. We were very worried about what we saw happening. Some researchers were at risk of losing their lab programs because they simply could not afford to continue to pay their staff and were not able to either recruit patients for studies or perform studies within their lab, and many researchers ended up having to balance their home and work life because schools were not open. Researchers who have young families really felt the brunt of it, because they had to manage virtual learning environments for their children while figuring out how to continue their work. 

We were also worried about what was happening to our future—which I think is ultimately why we decided we had to talk to the leadership and write this article—because there are trainees and students who were no longer offered positions at academic medical centers across the country because of hiring freezes and concerns about finances. [There is] potentially a whole generation of young people whose careers have been derailed by the pandemic.

See “Scientists Around the Globe Pivot Their Research to SARS-CoV-2

Finally, one of the things that we saw happening across the country was the COVID-related disparity that we as researchers, particularly underrepresented minority researchers, wanted to take an active role to try to improve . . . . But at the same time, universities hadn’t really figured out a way to credit faculty members for engaging in that type of work, and it ended up being an additional tax, in a way, on especially minority faculty, who tend to do those types of activities but have traditionally gotten little academic credit for [doing] so. 

I thought it was an opportunity to bring to light some of these challenges that we saw happening across the country, and really offer some solutions that we thought could help reduce the loss of future researchers and bolster the research mission at the academic medical centers.

See “Opinion: Grad Students Face Uncertainty During the Pandemic

TS: I think you touched on this, but why have underrepresented minority researchers been hit harder by the pandemic?

RC: Underrepresented minority researchers at academic medical centers, firstly, we are few, and our lab operations tend to be smaller because as a group we haven’t traditionally been as likely to receive federal funding for our lab operations through the NIH [National Institutes of Health]. We often have less mentorship, and our networks are not as expansive as those of our non-minority colleagues. Although all researchers have been impacted by the shutdowns, underrepresented minority researchers have been even more impacted because of these reasons. 

For example, if an underrepresented minority faculty member has only a small grant and his or her lab or research program is shut down and they’re not able to get data, they don’t have much of a buffer, and the risk of losing that faculty member as a researcher can be quite high. So these are challenges uniquely experienced by underrepresented minority researchers. We wanted to offer some solutions, some concrete solutions, that academic medical centers might be able to employ to particularly address the risks that group of researchers are facing.

TS: What are some of the solutions or recommendations that you discuss in the paper?

RC: We offer constructive solutions for academic medical centers to undertake for all researchers, and we also offer some strategies specifically for underrepresented minority researchers. . . . One of the things that we thought was really urgent was for academic medical centers to innovate around the way that resources are traditionally allocated in a university setting. 

[There is] potentially a whole generation of young people whose careers have been derailed by the pandemic.

Typically, individual researchers—we call them principal investigators—have to figure out a way to fund her or his own research program and those dollars go to that research program. And that strategy, we think, works when there are plenty of resources available. But when resources are scarce, like what we experienced during the pandemic, we really wanted academic centers to think in a new way about how to garner resources to help researchers keep their lab programs open and their research programs open. One of the things that we thought was really important is that universities and academic medical centers develop a bridge fund and work with various leaders across their institution to create a pool of funding that all researchers could access to really bridge them through this pandemic. 

We also wanted to make sure, however, that those funds are equitably allotted to underrepresented minority researchers as well as non-minority researchers, so institutions would have to really take stock of who their underrepresented minority faculty are and develop a database to track how these funds are being allocated equitably. We thought that that was really an urgent thing, and I have to say that our university was successful in implementing such a program, and I was one of many who benefited from that bridge program. 

Another thing I want to highlight that we thought was really critically important and urgent is that academic medical centers end the hiring freeze for students and trainees and junior faculty. These [people] are the most vulnerable among us. They are just starting their careers. If we don’t think critically about how to retain that group of investigators, we potentially could lose a generation of investigators, and there aren’t many underrepresented minority investigators to begin with. 

[Another recommendation is that] academic medical centers really look at their promotion processes and offer researchers either an extension on the promotion clock and/or adapt their promotion criteria to include the things that researchers, especially underrepresented minority researchers, are very likely to be engaged in, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of community outreach, engagement, and advocacy. These are activities that many underrepresented minority researchers and other faculty members are doing at the risk of not being able to develop their own careers, and we think that academic medical centers should really take a look at their processes and incorporate these professional development activities to count for career advancement. This is something, also, that our university has done, and we’re really proud that we were able to contribute to getting our university to make the shift.

TS: Do you think that there’ve been any upsides to the pandemic in terms of highlighting some of these issues that perhaps were around even around before the pandemic?

RC: Yeah, I think one thing that the pandemic has taught all of us, whether you’re in research or not, is that we as large institutions do indeed have the capacity to be innovative and nimble, and we don’t have to be beholden to traditional ways of operation. And that part has been really exciting for me to watch, especially with the vaccine development. Taking some of those lessons that made vaccine development so successful and applying them to our day-to-day research operations, I think, is a very exciting prospect that leaders at academic centers should really look at. 

These are challenges uniquely experienced by underrepresented minority researchers.

One of the things I was really struck by was the coordination between the regulatory bodies that got the vaccines developed as quickly as they were able to do. On the academic medical side, one of the things that we thought would be really helpful is for us to use a similar approach of looking at our own regulatory bodies—and for us it’s the review board for human subjects research as well as animal research—and figuring out ways to increase resources for the board so that we can expedite the speed at which investigators can get their protocols approved, so that when we are one hundred percent back in the lab and back in our research programs, we don’t have additional delays for regulatory processes. I think there’s a lot that we all have learned from the pandemic. I’m looking forward to a new way of doing science more cooperatively, more collaboratively. I hope that we don’t go fully back to the way that we previously conducted science, which tended to be a more siloed approach.

TS: How would you like this paper to be received?

RC: I would love for department heads and university heads to read our paper and adopt some of the ideas that we have. Some of them are quite urgent, especially related to the bridge funding for minority researchers and ending hiring freezes for the most vulnerable among us. I think those are two critical things that need to happen urgently. And there are ways to accommodate these recommendations that are actually still fiscally responsible. I know that’s a big worry of academic medical centers, but we think that now’s the time to invest in research infrastructure, not to shrink it. So that’s the big message that we have. Otherwise, we’re going to lose quite a few researchers, many who are just getting their careers started. So if we had that impact, I think we will feel that our publication has been a success.

R.M. Carr et al., “Academic careers and the COVID-19 pandemic: Reversing the tide,” Sci Transl Med13:eabe7189, 2021.

Editor’s note: This interview was edited for brevity.