01/09/2015 03:55 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2015

Big Problems Require Big Solutions: The Federal Government's Bold Diversity Initiative

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Recently, Intel made headlines when it announced a $300 million investment to encourage diversity in its ranks. After last summer's news about the dearth of women and minorities in tech, Intel is the first company to make such a large investment to address concrete goals. CEO Brian Krzanich said, "Without a workforce that more closely mirrors the population, we are missing opportunities..."

Technology is not the only sector in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields where women and minorities are vastly underrepresented and Intel is not alone in their bold vision of a diverse future in STEM. Towards the end of 2014, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced awards of nearly $31 million to fund Enhancing the Diversity of the NIH-Funded Workforce, a three-pronged set of initiatives to address the ongoing disparities faced by underrepresented minority (URM) researchers in biomedical sciences.

NIH is the largest source of funding for medical research in the world. According to the NIH website, more than 80 percent of NIH's budget goes to more than 300,000 research personnel at over 2,500 universities and research institutions nationwide. An additional 6,000 scientists work in NIH labs. NIH research has had a profound impact on the understanding of our country's most pressing health challenges: cancer, heart disease, diabetes, AIDS, mental illness, and more.

However, in 2011, Dr. Donna Ginther, a professor of economics at the University of Kansas published troubling research findings based on a comprehensive, six-year evaluation of grant applications submitted to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The Ginther Report, as it came to be known, revealed significant racial disparities among both submitted and awarded NIH grants, with underrepresented minorities receiving far fewer NIH awards than whites. Vowing to take action, NIH Director Francis S. Collins formed the Diversity Working Group to create and implement initiatives to significantly increase the diversity of the biomedical workforce (Ramos 2013).

The Diversity Working Group sought input from many organizations, including the Society for the Advancement of Hispanic/Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), of which I recently completed a term as President. SACNAS, along with many organizations, was well-established in addressing the significant shortfall of underrepresented minorities (URMs) in STEM fields, and in 2012, I was invited with then-SACNAS-President Dr. Ernest Márquez, to share SACNAS' experience, strategy, and best practices with the Diversity Working Group.

Today, I can say that the NIH did not only listen, but that they are going big to address the problems.

A Three-pronged Strategy

The Enhancing the Diversity of the NIH-Funded Workforce includes the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN), Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD), and the Coordination and Evaluation Center (CEC) at University of California, Los Angeles, designed to measure project effectiveness. The NRMN is the umbrella activity of the NIH initiative, connecting all the BUILD grants and providing mentor training, professional development, and mentoring on a national scale to a broad range of students and young professionals in the biomedical sciences and medicine.

Diverse Scientists to Lead Diversity Initiative

A number of my colleagues at SACNAS have been selected to lead significant portions of the initiative. Dr. David Burgess (Cherokee), a professor of biology at Boston College and past-president of SACNAS, will lead a $19 million portion of the NIH grant funding from Boston College where the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN) will be headquartered. The NRMN, tasked with increasing the success of minorities in grant funding and diversifying the talent pool of biomedical researchers, will partner with four major research institutions. The BUILD awardees and other universities will also utilize the expertise and resources of many academic and scientific organizations.

"NRMN will provide new opportunities for mentees, from the undergraduate through the junior faculty level, for customized professional development activities, mentor matching, and guidance along the career path," says Burgess.

Moreover, Dr. Leticia Márquez-Magaña, a professor of biology at San Francisco State University and a recent graduate of the SACNAS Summer Leadership Institute, will lead a $17 million portion of funding from San Francisco State University under the title SF BUILD, one of ten awarded BUILD grants. She will facilitate a team of science professors tasked with changing perceptions and dispelling myths about underrepresented minority groups.

The SF Build group works on the premise that diversity is necessary not for its own sake, but because multiple perspectives are needed in science. The group will examine factors that lead to minorities leaving science disciplines, such as "stereotype threat," and their effects. Márquez-Magaña elaborated in a recent San Francisco State University News article announcing the SF Build funding. "If a female student were to enter an all-male classroom or lab setting, the potential for prejudices can affect her ability to function at a higher level. That's why we need to make these classrooms safe."

This aggressive push by NIH represents a major change in the scale of addressing disparity. The NIH initiative will focus on smaller institutions to build a pipeline of students to research intensive universities. It will provide a national connection for mentoring, professional development, and mentor training through NRMN. It will carry out evaluation and analysis through the CEC. It is a bold, large-scale experiment and it is everyone's great hope that through these coordinated efforts we will learn about the impediments to inclusion and change the face of STEM to reflect the demographics of our country.

It is my hope that with Intel and NIH leading the way, 2015 will see significant advancements in concrete investments and strategy to actualize our long struggle for equal representation in STEM.