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Intentional philanthropy to diversify science

May 17, 2021

News_scientists-in-labLast week, Michael Bloomberg announced a $150 million gift to my alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, to provide permanent funding for a hundred STEM PhD students from minority-serving institutions. The gift is noteworthy not for its amount but rather for its potential to increase PhD attainment for Black and Latinx students in STEM fields.

The initiative has the potential not only to signal change but to drive it. In the decade from 2010 to 2019, the share of Black Americans among all PhD recipients rose just over half a percentage point, from 4.9 percent to 5.5 percent. Assuming that representation at Hopkins is reflective of the national data, Bloomberg's gift could double the number of Black and Latinx students in Hopkins PhD programs. It's an important start, but not enough; long-term change will require a sea change in culture across all STEM fields.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other funders have been working to address the problem for decades, but several recent studies suggest that targeted funding at the PhD level does not translate to higher retention of Black and Latinx scientists in academia. A 2017 study found that Black faculty members made up only 0.7 percent of tenure-track faculty in biology across forty top institutions in the U.S., highlighting the dramatic attrition of Black PhDs over the course of the typical academic career trajectory. While most PhD scientists go on to have successful careers outside academia, it is nevertheless important to monitor the data for those who stay — not least because academic researchers play a key role in training future scientists, interfacing with clinical trial participants, and directing scientific inquiry. If Black scientists are choosing to seek other careers, we must stop to ask why and address the issues so that efforts to increase representation among scientists translate to all settings where scientists are engaged.

Funding, equity, and community

A decade ago, a study found that Black scientists were significantly less likely to receive a research grant from NIH than similarly qualified white colleagues. In 2019, NIH published a follow-up report showing that one contributing factor to the disparity was that Black researchers applied for funding in areas that were of lower overall priority to the federal agency. A seemingly obvious solution to the problem would be to encourage Black researchers to apply for grants in higher-priority areas. However, the critical questions should be: "Exactly who is determining health research priorities?" and "Are these priorities addressing the needs and perspectives of the whole population?"

Shifting to nonprofits and philanthropies, it is well documented that advisory recommendation boards lack diverse perspectives and are therefore less able to navigate and guide health research in ways that are most impactful for a diverse population. Increasing the diversity of the bodies that set priorities will feed back into research settings where Black scientists struggle to access funding for the topics they see as most important.

Beyond the differences in fields of study that Black, Indigenous, and people of color scientists choose, NIH has noted that the standard process by which scientific proposals are evaluated may drive disparities in funding. Overall, Black scientists are half as likely to receive key research grants from NIH. The agency has noted that proposals from BIPOC scientists are less likely to be discussed and, when discussed, tend to score lower on average. Given that the applications all came from highly accomplished researchers, the finding not only suggests systemic racism, it underscores how it is perpetuated.

Finally, funders and institutions must pay attention to how Black and Latinx student-scientists are supported when there are so few faculty members available to them. Nearly 6 percent of biology PhD recipients but only 0.7 percent of biology PhD faculty are Black — an imbalance that places a disproportionate amount of mentoring and role-modeling responsibilities on a relatively small number of faculty. Increasing diversity among STEM scholars and scientists must not come at the expense of increasing the workloads of BIPOC faculty. Funders and institutions can help address these challenges by providing more support for Black faculty and/or acknowledging the existence of these disparities in the review process.

Last fall, many of us celebrated MacKenzie Scott's investment in the endowments of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Today, we cheer Mike Bloomberg's effort to connect these programs to top-tier STEM PhD programs. And we hope his investment will set the stage for other funders, philanthropic and public, to support scholars of color at every stage of their scientific careers. All funders must take a deep, critical look at their priorities, vetting processes, and advisory protocols. After all, what better way is there to further the change you want to see?

Altimus-Cara_PhilanTopicCara Altimus, PhD, is a senior director at the Milken Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy.

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