How Does Diversity Impact Science? NIH Workforce Diversity Concludes Final Seminar

May 26, 2022

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) held the last session of the 2021-2022 season of the NIH Scientific Workforce Diversity Seminar Series, titled “How Does Diversity Impact Science.” The NIH Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity (COSWD), Marie A. Barnard, M.D., facilitated the panel discussion on outcomes of scientific workforce diversity, how that impacts creativity and innovation in science, and effective methods measuring this impact. All presentation materials and the video recording can be found on the NIH COSWD website.

Dr. Barnard announced the release of the 2022-2026 strategic plan for COSWD, informed by NIH diversity, equity, inclusion, and access (DEIA) strengths and needs. FABBS provided comments to the NIH UNITE RFI last year, which was included in the external input that the office considered while forming the strategic plan. Dr. Barnard also announced that her office is leading an NIH UNITE initiative to release a DEIA institutional prize. They recently released an RFI to seek input (due by July 28) and plan to launch the initiative in FY 23.

Astrophysicist and White House Office of Science and Technology (OSTP) Principal Assistant Director for STEM Opportunity and Engagement, Jedidah Isler, Ph.D., provided opening remarks. Dr. Isler commented on her own experience in STEM and the benefits of fostering pathways for a broader community to contribute and benefit from science. OSTP will soon release a national STEM equity strategy to identify and act on ways to increase participation in science. Last month, the Biden Administration released The White House Office of Science and Technology Equity Action Plan. See FABBS’ previous coverage on the Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.

Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Laurel Smith-Doerr, Ph.D., studies organizations, science, and technology, to better understand and disrupt gendered and racialized inequalities. Dr. Smith-Doerr’s presentation, “How Diversity Matters in the U.S. Science and Engineering Workforce: Integration and Inclusion in Teams and Departments,” included the following research findings on inclusive departments:

  • The range of people who benefit from innovation is broader when the science teams were diverse.
  • Collegial, informal mentoring is an important part of the mechanism of inclusion.
  • Just as biological research studies the environment, there is a need for the science of our science ecosystem to inform investments in inclusion.

Director of the NIH Office of Portfolio Analysis, George Santangelo, Ph.D., analyzed the relationship between mentoring and scientific productivity among 18,600 pre- and post-doctoral fellowships. His presentation titled, “The effect of mentee and mentor gender on scientific productivity of applicants for NIH training fellowships,” emphasized that some previous attempts to characterize the question of mentor-mentee relationships had overly simplified metrics. He provided methods on how to better measure productivity output based on mentee-mentor dyads – by going beyond the number of citations when measuring scientific productivity. One key finding from his analysis on 18,600 pre- and post-doctoral fellowship applications is that the female mentor-female mentee and the female mentor-male mentee dyad outperform their male counterparts in clinical impact, despite the institutional barriers faced by women pursuing careers in the biomedical sciences.

Deputy Director of Innovation and Research at California State University, Monterey Bay, Jennifer Kuan, Ph.D. studies economic policy, including collaborative approaches to industry growth. Her presentation titled “Discrimination and Diversity,” touched on principles of behavioral science, sociology, and  their economic applications. One example is the theory of homophily, or taste-based preferences to be among people who are similar. Dr. Kuan presented on a real-world example of a medical university which tampered the test scores based on gender. Her observational outcomes included the following points:

  • Discrimination lowers the bar for the un-discriminated, or in-group.
  • One test of discrimination is if the underrepresented group outperforms their homophilic peers, which results in higher average quality in the discriminated class.
  • Discrimination can result in “Missing Einsteins” – where innovation is stifled due to the systematic exclusion of individuals or ideas.

Richard B. Freeman, Ph.D., Herbert Ascherman Professor of Economics at Harvard University, concluded the panel with his presentation, “Diversity in Scientific Teams Researching COVID-19,”highlighting the pervasiveness of homophily in science as scientists form teams and cite those they know. Dr. Freeman also cited that the effect of “minority scale bias,” the bias in citations due to citation homophily among groups differing in number of papers, harms minorities – such as women and researchers from small countries, with likely impacts on their careers.

President Emerita and Professor of Molecular Biology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, Shirley Tilghman, Ph.D., provided concluding remarks on the ethics of exclusion and the compromised quality of science when diversity is lacking.

During the question-and-answer portion of the discussion, the panelists highlighted the need for multi-disciplinary teams to diversify scientific research – as scientists and research from the behavioral and social sciences have historically been overlooked. Dr. Santangelo mentioned that another important contribution of the NIH to diversifying science is to make early pipeline investments so that these scientists can be picked up by STEM industries.