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AChemS Statement on Suggestions to Advance and Strengthen Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in the Biomedical Research Workforce and Advance Health Disparities and Health Equity Research


04/09/2021

Dear NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins:

In response to the Request for Information (RFI): Inviting Comments and Suggestions to Advance and Strengthen Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in the Biomedical Research Workforce and Advance Health Disparities and Health Equity Research Notice Number: NOT-OD-21-066 we submit the following recommendations for your consideration.

We represent the Association for Chemoreception Sciences (AChemS) and are deeply disturbed, angered and saddened by the systemic and structural racism around us, and by the fact that these problems impact the lives of minorities in all institutions, including academia. AChemS is one of the oldest and largest scientific organization committed to the study of the chemical senses. We recognize that our society includes a very small fraction of underrepresented minority (URM) members.

We realize that current efforts to remediate this problem in academia in general are inadequate and that we all need to do more to help create an even playing field in the areas of training, research, and career development. We also recognize that these are longstanding issues at a societal level that span U.S. history, and that have never been fully addressed nor resolved with a deep solution of fairness, justice, and equity. We believe it is critical that the NIH and AChemS recognize the experiences of our URM peers, listen to their voices, honor their work, and not let them stand alone.  

We make the following recommendations for the NIH (and at a smaller scale, commit our society to follow similar efforts) to improve Diversity and Justice in the sciences:

Support: NIH leadership needs to formally and publicly support the calls for fairness and justice at all levels, as well as support the actions of those in our community who are effecting change

Listen: In particular, NIH needs to establish practical forums to facilitate listening and responding to the needs of the URM members of our society at large, and invite all those who would like to express their views.

Early Career: As has been highlighted by many others, NIH must have programming that specifically addresses career issues for budding young URM scientists.

Committed Support: The NIH should identify URM scientists and programs that will promote URM participation in research endeavors, and commit specific funds to support these individuals and these efforts.

Career Interest Development: The NIH should commit to increasing interest in careers in the sciences among URMs at an early age. There should be programs to start introducing the idea of science as a career to children in schools as early as possible for as broad a background of children as possible. As one example, the NIH should require that if a scientist receives a major NIH grant that they must make a scientific presentation in schools about their work. Preceding this, researchers with NIH funding should be trained in how to discuss science with children in schools.

Outreach Science Modules: We recommend that the NIH in collaboration with researchers in specific disciplines create science modules for kids in schools to learn about the intrigue of exploring scientific puzzles, as well as educate children about careers in discovery science. This could include preparation of packages of talking points, experiments, exercises for students in elementary/middle/high school. Further, the NIH should encourage use of these packages by undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows, as well as faculty to engage with children at all levels. Development of these packages is crucial to facilitate engagement for those less experienced with interacting with school aged children, and will help to insure accuracy in content.

Engage Diversity Supplement Recipients:  The NIH should encourage PIs who are recipients of Diversity Supplements and their mentees to find novel, locally-appropriate, ways to engage other local URM High School students to draw them into biomedical science careers.

Broaden Research Possibilities and Opportunities: The NIH should commit to bridging URM college students to graduate school. We propose the NIH create a fund to support research opportunities for undergraduate URM research throughout the school year and for Summer research and to travel to laboratories for research rotations and training experiences. Furthermore, we strongly recommend that the NIH create research opportunities for lab research within academic institutions beginning at the high school level, as the undergraduate level is not early enough to foster deep interest.

Science Conference Attendance: The NIH should increase funding for URMs (from undergraduate to post-doctoral) to attend scientific conferences, and, for local conferences, the NIH could support attendance for URM high school students.  Since science conferences can be difficult for a HS student to navigate, we suggest they be assigned an undergrad or grad student 'buddy' to shepherd the HS student through the meeting. This is an idea that was practiced by the Society for Neuroscience to bring local high school students to their meetings.

Matrix Networking:  The NIH should commit to helping to create a fair networking "playing field" of career advancement by pairing mentees with mentors to help with training, funding, and job networking opportunities. By supporting matrix mentoring via a hybrid of virtual and in person training programs for high school, undergraduate and graduate students, we can promote networking that will link URM scientists horizontally (with peers forming social circles) and vertically (with accomplished senior colleagues interested in promoting URM sustained incorporation). This format fosters social capital and strengthens self-assessment and confidence, both key to long-term success.

Mental Health and Well-Being: The NIH should foster programs that target well-being for URM students and faculty. Careers in science can be stressful, catalyzing problems in mental health and well-being, and this can be particularly problematic for underrepresented minorities within academia. To this point, structural and institutional racism is recognized today as a public health risk for URMs.

Honoring/Recognizing: The NIH should advocate that URM researchers in our various science communities are more carefully considered and better represented among our honored members, awardees, and meeting invited speakers.

It is important that we work to eliminate systemic and institutional racism, personal racism, and unconscious bias, and also work to increase the diversity within our own profession, without succumbing to the institutional structures and processes that can block openness and prevent change. Ultimately this is positive, not just for the URMs, but also for the science because diverse input from a spectrum of different perspectives results in more thorough questioning of the basic tenets of scientific advance. We appreciate the opportunity to provide these comments and look forward to working together to address this critical need.

Thank You for collecting thoughts, suggestions, and ideas to promote Diversity in science and to correct the errors of our past and present on this topic.

Respectfully Submitted,
On behalf of the AChemS Executive and Diversity Committees