A Look at WHY Underrepresented Populations Leave Neuroscience Research

In “Factors that Influence Career Choice Among Different Populations of Neuroscience Trainees,” published recently in eNeuro, NINDS program director Lauren Ullrich, Ph.D., and fellow authors bring to light many issues about why women and individuals from underrepresented populations leave the neuroscience field at rates higher than men and Whites. They are less often first authors of papers, publish in journals with lower impact factors, and less often submit grants through the “special,” more honorific mechanisms NIH has to offer.

Why do marginalized groups, including women and/or people of color, leave research and academia more frequently than men and Whites? The study found that they are more likely to care about work-life balance and less about professional independence and recognition compared to men and Whites. What do they care most about? Recent studies point to creating a legacy, contributing to social purpose, and filling a societal and institutional need. In fact, nowhere is this more apparent than among women faculty at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. No wonder journal impact factors and being a senior author and principal investigator just don’t seem to cut it for women or people of color! And their inability to relate to what their mentors and leaders, mostly White men, tell them is most important fuels the same message that they continue to get throughout their training: they don’t belong in this club and can’t contribute to this enterprise.

Why is it that women and/or people of color do not submit grants as often as men and Whites to so-called high-risk, high-reward grant mechanisms? Perhaps we only have to look at the names of those mechanisms. Marginalized individuals are not encouraged to take high risks. They spend their professional lives being told that “high rewards” are not for them. These awards have names like “pioneer” and “early independence.” These titles are the antithesis of what our society has said to women and African Americans for 400 years.

So, what can we do about this? How might we diversify our biomedical research workforce? How can we change the culture of science to make it conducive to the recruitment and retention of those underrepresented in its ranks? Dr. Ullrich et al. suggest several mechanisms, many of which have begun to be implemented by the NINDS and NIH. For example, cohort hiring of such individuals to the faculties of medical and graduate schools would create “instant community” and a sense of acceptance in a department. Incentivization of mentoring by individuals from underrepresented populations and at the research team and principal investigator levels would both signify acceptance and advantage and provide validation and reward for the things underrepresented scientists value most. At the same time, rewarding the work that historically excluded groups do by changing tenure practices and other efforts to change the culture of academia is critically important.

The strategies the authors recommend are all to the good and are likely to enhance the longitudinal appeal of a career in neuroscience research to scientists from historically excluded communities. But they must be coupled with validation and reward for other kinds of careers that are dominated by marginalized scientists – academia, communications, community engagement, public relations, and development. Welcoming those individuals into biomedical research circles and retaining them by celebrating their value will enrich the field and change the equation for those who pursue these passions. But without commensurate compensation, reward, and respect for those who choose other science-critical career paths, not because it is more comfortable for their gender or race, but because that is their passion, we will still be leaving much of our valuable currency on the proverbial table.

Additional Reading

Schor NF. J Women Educat Leader. 2021 Jan;doi: 10.32873/unl.dc.jwel.198.

Schor NF. Career equity in medicine. Nat Med. 2021 May;27(5):746. doi: 10.1038/s41591-021-01239-3. PMID: 33589824.

Ullrich LE, Ogawa JR, Jones-London MD. Factors that influence career choice among different populations of neuroscience trainees. eNeuro. 2021 May 25:ENEURO.0163-21.2021. doi: 10.1523/ENEURO.0163-21.2021. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 34039650.

Valantine HA. NIH’s scientific approach to inclusive excellence. FASEB J. 2020 Oct;34(10):13085-13090. doi: 10.1096/fj.202001937. PMID: 33373164.