Diversifying the Biomedical Research Workforce

Participation of underrepresented (UR) individuals in the biomedical sciences, as well as in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, is a critical issue affecting our nation’s health and the future of research. By 2050, less than half the general population will be non-Hispanic whites, making the U.S. a majority-minority country. Yet our nation’s scientists remain a largely homogeneous group. Certain racial/ethnic groups (African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders), women, individuals with disabilities, and socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals are persistently underrepresented in the research workforce (Valantine & Collins, 2015). In order to address the health needs of our rapidly diversifying population with cultural sensitivity and inclusiveness – and make progress toward health equity– we need to cultivate the talents of individuals from all backgrounds. Infusing the scientific process with diverse perspectives is essential to the future success of biomedical and STEM research.

That's why APLU and USU joined with the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) to address the lack of diversity in STEM and biomedical research fields. Unlike the health professions, there are few evidence‐based strategies for improving diversity and cultural competence within STEM and biomedical science doctoral programs. To remedy this lack of knowledge, the three associations convened a set of expert working groups to review available data, identify gaps, and propose actions for improving evidence. The resulting report, Increasing Diversity in the Biomedical Research Workforce, recommends a bold agenda that will advance a diverse research workforce.

Why Diversity Matters 

In higher education, a diverse learning environment increases students’ exploration of diverse perspectives, reduces levels of racial prejudice, and increases tolerance of alternative points of view and other human differences (Carnevale & Fry, 2000) – outcomes that benefit all students, not just those who are UR. In the research workforce, a recent study found that ethnically diverse co-authors produce higher-quality science as measured by journal impact factor and number of citations (Freeman & Huang, 2014). Another study found that journal articles authored by gender-heterogeneous teams were perceived as higher-quality in the peer-review process, and received 34 percent more citations (Campbell, Mehtani, Dozier, & Rinehart, 2013). 

In the healthcare industry, workforce diversity is part of the comprehensive strategy to address inequities in health and health care. UR health professionals care for a disproportionate number of minority and medically underserved patients, and those patients report higher levels of satisfaction –particularly when receiving mental health care (Health Resources and Services Administration [HRSA], 2006). In some instances, a diverse biomedical research workforce also improves engagement with research participants from UR groups (Noah, 2003; Whitla et al., 2003). Establishing trust among study participants and ensuring that research is culturally informed helps avoid biased outcomes, particularly in clinical trials, where minorities are underrepresented (Ford et al., 2008; Corbie-Smith, Thomas, & St George, 2002). 

Actions for Improving Evidence

Universities have developed numerous interventions designed to increase recruitment, persistence and success of UR individuals in the biomedical science and STEM fields. But while specific programs have produced descriptive material, more empirical research is needed to identify outcomes and the effectiveness of institutional strategies. The process of diversifying the research workforce is complex and affected by institutional and community contexts. The same rigorous methods of inquiry used in scientific discovery can be applied to the challenge of producing a more diverse workforce. University leaders need to be assured that practices are firmly grounded in evidence and will lead to improvements across the university. 

Universities play an essential role in preparing the future workforce and have the opportunity to catalyze changes that will enhance the research enterprise, drive discovery, and increase our nation’s competitiveness in the global economy. This report provides a set of specific actions – including pilots, cross-institutional studies, and analysis of national datasets – to strengthen the scientific evidence needed to guide university interventions in the future. These ideas provide a starting point for USU/APLU/AAMC member institutions to work collaboratively with national partners toward the shared goals of increasing access to STEM and biomedical science careers, and ensuring student success in those fields. 

They Include: