Diversification of the Neuroscience Workforce: Not One Size Fits All

In August 2019, NINDS welcomed more than 35 female Prince George’s County Public School STEM students at the Girls Navigating Neuroscience program (click image to learn more)
Image Credit: Chia-Chi Charlie Chang

Given that the word “diverse” means “made up of many different kinds,” it has always seemed odd to me that we think of the process of diversification in one dimension only. Recent studies have suggested that not only the degree but also the nature of diversification within the biomedical workforce differs among race and ethnicity, gender, level of expertise, and programmatic career focus. There can be no single specific recipe for achieving equity and inclusion; it requires, rather, a living, evolving, and creative cookbook!

Women in Academic Biomedical Leadership

There can be no question that women comprise a larger fraction of the academic biomedical enterprise workforce compared to a decade ago. While the percentage of biomedical leadership positions occupied by women has not kept pace with the total numbers, it too has increased. But a deeper dive into the leadership roles occupied by women reveals that they are disproportionately represented in positions involved with teaching, institutional image-making and fundraising, and community and interpersonal engagement. Women are still disproportionately scarce in areas like institutional policy, finance, and clinical and research leadership.

Interestingly, preliminary studies suggest that women faculty at historically Black colleges and universities are more likely than at predominantly white colleges and universities to assume roles “traditionally” assigned to men. It is not clear why this is, but these early studies suggest it is related to the pervasiveness of the social mission of these schools and the likelihood that their leadership positions are community-facing1.

Furthermore when a woman, as opposed to a man, serves as the primary research leader of a medical school, there appears to be a shift in projects and total grant portfolios from basic and clinical research to projects involving community-based and epidemiological research and training and research core grants2.

The fact that women are paid less than men for doing the same job is well documented. In addition, several studies have shown that a manuscript or grant application submitted by a woman is less likely to be published or funded than the same one submitted by a man. For this reason, several journals, nonprofit granting agencies, and organizational national meetings have gone to anonymous submission paradigms.

At NINDS, we have noticed that women and men generally do equivalently well in grant competitions. But for some mechanisms, like those associated with the BRAIN Initiative and the high risk-high reward mechanisms, many fewer applications are submitted by women than by men. We are working hard to disseminate information about the equivalent success rates; to examine the language used in announcements and our publicity efforts for various grant mechanisms for inadvertent deterrents to women applying; and to reach out to women specifically regarding award mechanisms that could benefit greatly from representation of the viewpoints and approaches of both sexes and all genders.

African Americans in Neuroscience Careers

There can also be no question that African Americans comprise a larger fraction of medical and biomedical graduate students compared to a decade ago. But several studies have documented that disproportionately few of these students choose careers in neurology or academic neuroscience research. A recent pilot study looked at the residency choices of members of the Student National Medical Association, an organization comprised primarily of Black medical students and found that Black students who attended historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were less likely to choose neurology as a career than those who attended predominantly white colleges and universities. HBCUs were also less likely to have courses on, a major in, and/or a department of neuroscience compared to predominantly white colleges and universities of similar size, location, and academic focus3.

That said, prior studies have shown that introducing future M.D. and STEM Ph.D. students to neuroscience very early in their education maximizes the likelihood that they will go on to careers in neuroscience and neurology. This makes it tempting to speculate that making neuroscience courses and majors available to all students at all colleges will organically increase the diversity of the neuroscience workforce.

To this end, NINDS and the other NIH Institutes involved in the Blueprint for Neuroscience Research fund—a national program that focuses on undergraduate students from underrepresented minority groups in neuroscience research. The Enhancing Neuroscience Diversity through Undergraduate Research Education Experiences (ENDURE) program includes a two-year neuroscience research program during the academic and summer months. As of 2018, forty different neuroscience institutions provided an average of 1,700 hours of neuroscience research experience to each student over their two years in the program. There were 284 alumni of this program, 57% (162) of whom are enrolled in post-undergraduate programs. Of these 162 alumni, 88 are in neuroscience Ph.D. programs; 27 are in M.D.-Ph.D. or M.D. programs; and 47 are in M.S. or post-baccalaureate neuroscience programs.  

References:

1. Schor NF. The decanal divide: women in decanal roles at U.S. medical schools. Acad Med 93:237-240, 2018

2. Schor NF. Women in medical school leadership positions: implications for research. Ann Neurol 85:789-792, 2019

3. Schor NF. Diversifying child neurology: developing a workforce that reflects the patients and families for whom we care. Pediatric Neurology In Press (subscription may be required)

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