One of the best potential resources for supporting and developing minoritized scientists across their career pipeline is a diversity supplement award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). But a recent article from Yale School of Medicine researchers in JAMA finds that these awards are severely underutilized, despite being readily available and having a higher than average award rate.
“Almost all NIH grants are eligible for a diversity supplement,” says Dowin Boatright, MD, MBA, MHS, assistant professor of emergency medicine and officer for diversity and inclusion in emergency medicine and co-author of the article. “It’s an award that allows training opportunities for those underrepresented in science through race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or disability.”
When submitting any NIH grant application, a principal investigator (PI) can also apply for a diversity supplement, allowing him or her to bring on a mentee who is under-represented in science, from a high school student to a junior faculty member. Awardees receive robust salary support and the institution also receives additional funding. The diversity supplement award has been available since 1989.
“NIH diversity supplements are unique and may be the only diversity intervention that provides career development for minoritized faculty and makes money for an institution,” says Boatright, “but anecdotally, I didn’t know of anyone who had ever received a diversity supplement.”
When he and other Yale researchers looked at the data, their suspicions were confirmed. The researchers looked at diversity supplements awarded with RO1 grants — the most common NIH research grants — from 2005 to 2020. In 2011, there were only two RO1-associated diversity supplements awarded. In 2020, the number grew to 455 awarded, representing an annual growth rate of 82.8%." Nonetheless, say the researchers, these awards represent only a fraction of the diversity supplement’s potential. From 2005 to 2020, NIH funded 93,285 RO1 grants, and just 2,145 (or 2.3%) received one diversity supplement, and 149 (or .165%) received two or more supplements. Among institutions, the National Cancer Institute awarded the most diversity supplements over the 15-year period (429, or 3.2%) and the National Library of Medicine awarded the lowest number, six grants or 2.0%.
The researchers theorize that there’s both a lack of awareness around these grants and too much pressure on the PI to identify suitable candidates. Both issues could be addressed by institutions taking a more proactive role, they say.
“Right now, the PI is responsible for tracking someone down,” says lead author and medical student Katharine A. Hill, BA, BS. “If we institutionalize the process, we can take that responsibility out of the investigator’s hands.”
Boatright agrees. “The onus has to be on the institution,” he says, noting that institutions can incentivize the use of diversity supplements by making them part of the promotion process. Boatright also believes that medical schools should track their diversity supplements over time and make these data public, as he says diversity supplement utilization could represent a school’s true commitment to recruiting and retaining diverse faculty.
These grants have an excellent track record of being awarded. Boatright says one report from 2018 found that over 60% of diversity supplements applied for were awarded, which is significantly higher than other NIH grants.
In future studies, the researchers will look at what medical schools can do to better promote diversity supplements and how successful the supplements are at promoting careers and an inclusive culture at the school.
Other Yale researchers who contributed to the article include Mayur M. Desai, PhD, MPH, FACE, associate professor of epidemiology (chronic diseases) and associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion at Yale School of Public Health; Sarwat Chaudhry, MD, associate professor of medicine (general medicine) and associate dean for student research, medical education; and MD/PhD candidate Mytien Nguyen, MSc.