Note: This message was originally distributed to NHLBI staff and is now being shared with the larger community.
By now I expect that you are all aware of the article and commentary in the current issue of Science about the effect of race on the probability of receiving NIH funding. The article by Donna Ginther  [note: links may require a subscription to access] reported that among PhD applicants for NIH grants, black applicants are significantly less likely to receive funding than white applicants or those of Asian or Hispanic heritage. Previous training and the probability of receiving a priority score were associated with the greatest differences between blacks and whites. Participation in NIH training programs helped but did not eliminate the discrepancy. Service on NIH study sections was a significant factor in improving funding. Drs. Tabak and Collins published a commentary on the steps the NIH is planning to take to address these extremely disturbing data.
Yet as disturbing as the data themselves are, it is in some sense even more disturbing that they are not at all surprising to NHLBI scientific staff. We are well aware that while our research communities are extremely diverse, our black colleagues are underrepresented among both the PhD and MD investigators. The attention now being directed to the lack of inclusion of a large and important group of potential scientists provides an opportunity to rigorously analyze and address the multiple causes of the disparity.
The Ginther publication, which has been in progress for nearly a year, appears in a special issue on early childhood education in the sciences. Bruce Alberts introduces the issue with a provocative essay on the importance of early childhood education. My pediatric bias emerges as I urge that you all read not just the Ginther and Tabak articles, but the entire issue of Science. It addresses how we gain the qualities that predict success in science and, in fact, in any other field. The importance of executive function is emphasized in one article, which reminds us that "To be successful takes creativity, flexibility, self-control, and discipline. Central to all those are executive functions, including mentally playing with ideas, giving a considered rather than an impulsive response, and staying focused." Early learning in quantitative sciences is emphasized: "Too many children not only start behind their more advantaged peers, but also begin a negative trajectory in mathematics. Interventions designed to facilitate their mathematical learning during ages 3 to 5 years have a strong positive effect on these children's lives for many years thereafter." The cognitive basis of scientific thinking requires not only that children master content (specific facts and general concepts), but also processes (formulation of hypotheses, design of experiments and observations, and evaluation of evidence). Not mentioned in this issue, but crucial to the ability to compete for NIH grant support, are well-honed writing skills. The ability to communicate ideas and plans clearly in both publications and applications is essential, and most effectively taught well before college.
In these times of diminished resources, we will not be greatly increasing the numbers of our investigators, but we must optimize the success of those we train and broaden our definition of success. Please join me in eagerly embracing this challenge to develop a multi-pronged approach to make biomedical science a more inclusive world. Please identify junior faculty members and trainees who might benefit from exposure to group activities that will help develop their skills, such as invitations to workshops and participation on study section panels. Special Emphasis Panels are a good way to engage people and expose them to an up-front and personal look at the processes that directly determine their own success. Take a look at the NSF ADVANCE program , which addresses women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields by not only developing the skills of women scientists but also attempting to stimulate institutional transformations. We cannot afford to NOT have all the best minds contributing to solving the many problems we face as a society and the many opportunities we are offered as a scientific community. I would like to see the NHLBI become a laboratory for implementation science – developing and evaluating programs to help develop the skills our investigators need and broaden the appeal of the sciences in general. There are areas we cannot develop directly, such as K-12 education, but we can develop approaches that can be adopted and have a broad impact.
We will be having multiple discussions in the future. Now, I am asking you to think where we might modify our current activities and develop new strategic approaches, approaches that can be evaluated and assessed so that we can engage in a continuous process of promoting those that are effective and discarding and replacing those that are ineffective.
With best regards,