Diversity Statement, Definition, and Supplements
David Kosub: Hello and welcome to another edition of NIH’s All About Grants podcast. I’m your host, David Kosub, with the NIH’s Office of Extramural Research.
And today we’re going to be talking about one of the ways that NIH strives to increase the pool of biomedical and behavioral scientists here at NIH that have different life experiences and backgrounds, and that’s through our diversity supplements.
We’ll be talking about what are these supplements, our interest in diversity, who’s eligible, all that good stuff.
And, I’m pleased to say we have with us Dr. Jon Lorsch for this conversation, and he directs the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, and I welcome you to the program.
Jon Lorsch: Thank you, David.
David Kosub: Wonderful. So, let’s get started by having you tell us what is NIH’s interest in diversity?
Jon Lorsch: So, the reason NIH is interested in diversity, David, really comes down to the fact, as you said, that having people from different life experiences, different backgrounds, really strengthens the research process.
And there’s a variety of studies that show that diverse teams are stronger, and therefore NIH thinks that having a more diverse biomedical research workforce is going to produce better science and more efficient science.
David Kosub: So, how does this interest in diversity actually translate to the development of a funding opportunity?
Jon Lorsch: Well, that’s a great question, and NIH has a variety of different programs to build diversity at different levels. For instance, here at NIGMS, we actually have programs that span the gamut from the pre-K through 12 stage of scientists, or developing scientist’s career, all the way through the independent researcher phase of the career, and everything in between: undergraduate, graduate, post-doctoral, etcetera.
And so, when we’re thinking about developing a funding opportunity announcement to build diversity, we’re looking at what’s the need, what are different groups that would contribute to diversity, because for instance they’re underrepresented in the biomedical research workforce, and how we could promote their coming into and staying in the research enterprise. So those are the kinds of things we’re looking at.
David Kosub: So when someone is applying and they wanted to build their case as to why they should be considered, through groups that are underrepresented or need, can you talk a little bit more about that?
Jon Lorsch: Right, so it’s really important to remember that when we’re talking about diversity we’re talking about diversity broadly, and not just one specific group. We want to have people from all different backgrounds, from different life experiences.
And therefore it is important to remember that when we call out a specific group because it is underrepresented, that’s an example, and that’s a group we know is underrepresented, and therefore having more people from that group would build a diverse enterprise. But that doesn’t mean it’s exclusionary in that only people in the specific groups that we mention are eligible for diversity programs.
So, someone who comes from a group or a background that’s not specifically called out but thinks that they would contribute to diversity of the enterprise can certainly make that case.
David Kosub: So, back in the fall of 2019, NIH issued an updated statement on diversity, and for those interested that’s Guide Notice NOT-OD-20-031. And can you tell us a little bit more about this updated statement, such as the categories that are listed in it?
Jon Lorsch: Sure, so, the updated statement actually has four categories that are specifically mentioned, and again those are examples of groups that are underrepresented, not exclusionary.
And they are, starting with A), certain racial or ethnic groups that are underrepresented in the biomedical research workforce, B) people with disabilities, C), the category I think we’re going to talk about in a minute in more detail, which is people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and D), which is women who are, at least at the faculty level, underrepresented in biomedical research.
David Kosub: So, you prompted pretty well. So, the economically disadvantaged category, why did NIH revise the definition for this category?
Jon Lorsch: When you go back and look at the older notices, that had actually categories A, B, and C, and not that D specifically called out, that was women, C was disadvantaged backgrounds. And when we looked at that, two things came to light.
First is that it was being used very rarely, so we wondered why that was the case. And the second was that when we tried to put ourselves in the place of someone trying to decide if they qualified under that category or not, it was actually very difficult to do.
And there are two reasons for that, the first is that it defines low socioeconomic background using a well-defined metric, which was good and published by the government, but it was actually the poverty lines it was an extremely low bar, or high bar, depending on how you want to define it. The example I would give was that for a family of four to qualify, you had to be just a little over $25,000 a year in family income.
So if you think about that for a family of four that’s very, very low. Certainly someone at that level is socioeconomically disadvantaged, but I think you’d also agree that someone or probably a family who has twice that level of income also should be considered low income.
And in fact, most government agencies that use that threshold actually use a multiplier of the poverty line to define low income. So we felt that that was problematic, and that we were excluding people who really legitimately did grow up in low income backgrounds by using this very stringent threshold.
The other was, a second part of the category, which talked about people from certain, and they used the word certain, rural or, it said, inner city backgrounds.
And then that had sort of an opposite problem, which was it was quite vague, wasn’t defined in any way, and we concluded it would be very difficult for someone to know if they came from these certain inner-city, low income, or rural environments.
And, therefore, we decided we needed to actually take a good hard look at this and come up with metrics and measures that were much easier for a person to know what they qualified for.
The other thing I’ll just point out is that if you’re using a criterion that’s based on someone’s family income, it requires someone to know what their family income was when they were growing up, and that’s pretty hard to do. You know, say you’re a college student or a graduate student, and you want to know did your family make under $26,000 a year or over it, that’s difficult.
So we needed to find ways that it was more likely for a student to know if they qualified or not.
David Kosub: Thank you for that. So, how does NIH actually evaluate who’s eligible for these supplements? Who’s making those determinations?
Jon Lorsch: So it’s the students or the applicants themselves. These are self-reported, we don’t have any way of testing whether the person qualifies or not. They self-report, and that’s again why we needed to make it easy for them to know whether they fit into that category or not.
David Kosub: And who is eligible for these programs? Do you need a grant from NIH to be considered?
Jon Lorsch: Well, it depends on which program you’re talking about. So, again, NIH has many different diversity programs, some of them are training grants that go to an institution, and the institution uses that money to support the students and trainees, build their skills and their careers in various ways.
Some of them, like the diversity supplements program that we’ve been talking about, are actually supplements to an existing NIH research grant in order to bring a student from a background that’s underrepresented in the biomedical research workforce into the research to help get them interested in scientific research and promote their careers.
David Kosub: So, speaking of someone’s career, how might getting one of these supplements help someone’s career?
Jon Lorsch: That’s a good question, David. So, you can imagine, say you were a high school student, and actually diversity supplements go from high school all the way up to potentially early or even mid-career researchers, but imagine you were a high school student growing up in a region where there wasn’t a lot of access to scientific research as a career or understanding scientific research as a career, and you had an opportunity to work in a lab for a summer because the Principal Investigator got one of these diversity supplements to support you for the summer.
That could be life-changing, right? That you suddenly see what it is to do research, you catch the research bug, and you decide “wow, I didn’t know that was a career that I could do and I’m going to actually try to pursue that for my life’s work.” Same thing could happen for an undergraduate.
At the graduate or post-doctoral level, maybe it’s more that the person wants to join a certain lab, that lab doesn’t have sufficient funds to bring them on at that time, but if they get a supplement, they can bring that student on and have them work in the lab.
So, it’s a choice between do you work in the lab that really excites you, whose research speaks to you, or do you have to compromise and maybe join a lab where you’re not quite as excited.
David Kosub: Fantastic, so to continue demystifying NIH on the inside, if someone submits an application for one of these supplements, how is it reviewed?
Jon Lorsch: So, for the diversity supplements, those are what we call administrative supplements, so they’re reviewed internally by the program staff at each of the institutes and centers.
They look at a variety of criteria when reviewing them, for instance, how well do they respond to the components of the funding opportunity announcement that were laid out, there are things in there like a mentoring plan that need to be in place, how compelling is the case that the person does need this and that it will help advance their career and build the diversity of the research enterprise, and of course, funds available are also a critical issue that’s looked at. But those are administrative.
Many of the other programs I mentioned, the training grants, for instance, are reviewed by peer review through the Center for Scientific Review for each of the institutes and centers, which have their own peer review groups as well.
David Kosub: So, this has been great, Jon, what final thoughts would you like to leave with our listeners who might interested in applying for one of these supplements?
Jon Lorsch: Well, for the diversity supplements, it’s a program that we, at least at NIGMS, have looked at in terms of outcomes, and the outcomes are quite good. It suggests that the program works. Unfortunately, we don’t get as many applications NIH-wide as we would like.
So one thing I’d just ask the listeners to think about is spreading the word about the diversity supplements, thinking about applying yourself, if you think you’re someone who’s qualified for it, and even talking to your PI if you’re a student about putting the grant in and supporting you and your work.
That’s the main message I’d like to get out is please apply for the diversity supplements, and thank you very much.
David Kosub: Great, greatly appreciate this opportunity, Jon, for you to tell us more about diversity supplements.
For those who are interested, please do check out the many resources that are available on the NIH website related to diversity.
You can also check out the individual NIH institutes and centers, check out their webpages for more information on the supplements and please do contact your program officers early and often, because they are a wealth of information too.
This has been David Kosub with NIH’s All About Grants. Thank you.