Guest Editorial

Welcoming Diversity in the NIH Intramural Research Program

Hnnah Valentine

Recently, I’ve started using the phrase “Great Minds Think Differently” as a proxy for why diversity is needed and important in the biomedical workforce. Put quite simply: At the heart of diversity is difference, not sameness. Moreover, difference encourages a broad palette of scientific discovery and solutions for the complexity of health challenges before us. Addressing and solving scientific questions and translating discoveries to enhance human health requires all the human capital of this diverse nation to contribute.

In addition to my role as NIH’s first chief scientific diversity officer, I am a tenured senior investigator in the Laboratory of Transplantation Genomics in the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s intramural research program (IRP). I know the critical importance of scientific rigor in solving complex problems. My proof-of-concept studies on the role of donor-derived cell-free DNA as a biomarker for organ rejection grew iteratively through hypotheses into a multisite consortium of mid-Atlantic transplant centers. True to form as cardiologists with a love for acronyms, we call our consortium GRAfT (Genomic Research Alliance for Transplantation). We’re now testing the clinical utility of noninvasive genomic tools for detecting early signs of heart- and lung-transplant rejection and infection.

Akin to my work in transplant rejection, scientific workforce diversity is an issue that must be addressed through rigorous, evidenced-based approaches. But we face challenges in doing so. NIH Director Francis Collins and I addressed them recently in a PNAS Perspective (Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 112:12240–12242, 2015; www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1515612112). I encourage you to read it.

Briefly, the challenges include four domains ripe for exploration: more-thorough study of the science of diversity; addressing career-transition gaps; studying the role of psychosocial factors in recruitment, retention, and leadership; and sustaining scientific workforce diversity for the long term.

We’re hard at work confronting these challenges across the NIH-funded workforce, but we’ve begun answering some questions about diversity here at NIH in the IRP. Deputy Director for Intramural Research Michael Gottesman and many scientific directors have been close allies in these efforts because we all recognize the value of diversity in establishing and maintaining the IRP as a high-performing organization. Our goals are to make our IRP not only the national model for the scientific freedom to explore ideas, but also a place for diversity to thrive via our long-term plans to develop career opportunities. We plan to accomplish these goals using a suite of centrally supported programs that are geared to promote independence and confidence in a truly diverse cadre of early-career scientists and to ensure their advancement to leadership roles.

Here are a few examples of what we are doing within the IRP:

    ·  We’re developing and curating a recruitment database of highly competitive applicants from diverse backgrounds as well as a formal ambassador program designed for effective outreach to attract scientists to the IRP.

    ·  We’re developing a senior sabbatical program with opportunities for established investigators from diverse backgrounds, and their mentees, to directly experience the resources and culture of the IRP.

    ·  We’re providing educational sessions and tools to NIH Stadtman search-committee chairs, scientific directors, branch chiefs, and ultimately principal investigators about the role of nonconscious bias in hiring.

    ·  We’re identifying and filling programming gaps, especially at the postdoc-to-faculty stages, where attrition is higher for people from under-represented groups, including women.

     ·  We recently hosted the successful Future Research Leaders Conference, which was embedded within the 2015 NIH Research Festival and brought together past recipients of NIH diversity supplement grants and IRP scientific leadership. See article at http://irp.nih.gov/catalyst/v23i6/focus-on-science.

It is clear from research that diversity promotes innovation, and I can say confidently that great minds do think differently. We all stand to gain from having a workforce that looks like America and that delivers excellent science toward improving health and the economy. I am excited to be a part of the NIH community and to continue to partner with the leadership and staff of the IRP—truly an NIH treasure.