New HHMI efforts to help young scientists highlight ongoing diversity challenge

first_imgIn a bid to move the needle, HHMI next year will select 15 inaugural Gray fellows. (Applications are due 15 February.) Each will receive $80,000 a year for up to 4 years as a postdoc, and then $270,000 a year for up to 4 years after they are hired into a tenure-track academic position. Candidates must be part of a group underrepresented in the biomedical sciences, a definition that includes those who are economically disadvantaged. (HHMI has committed up to $20 million for the first cohort of Gray fellows, and holds open the possibility of additional cohorts.)If all goes well, a decade from now those selected as Gray fellows might be well positioned to compete for NIH grants and other awards. But the list of HHMI’s 84 new faculty scholars—each of whom has been an independent investigator for less than a decade, and will get up to $1.5 million over 5 years to pursue their research dreams—is a reminder of how hard it is now for scientists from underrepresented groups, or less prestigious institutions, to rise above the pack. Only one of the scholars is black, and four have Latino backgrounds. And although the scholars come from 43 institutions, a majority (44) work at just nine schools—led by Harvard University, with a whopping 10 winners. Four other research powerhouses—Stanford, Princeton, and Yale universities and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center—each boast five winners, and both the University of California, San Francisco, and The Rockefeller University are home to four scholars. None of the scholars come from institutions that educate large numbers of minority students.None of that is surprising, given that diversity was not a factor in selecting the winners—as is often the case in prestigious scientific fellowships. “The primary criteria were the quality of the proposal and whether the researchers could benefit from this additional money,” says HHMI’s Janet Shaw, who runs the Faculty Scholars Program. The scholars already have “terrific jobs” based on “their brilliant work as postdocs,” she adds, and HHMI hopes that its funding will let them take one more step up the ladder toward a “transformative career in biomedical research.”HHMI expects to spend $83 million on the first of what it hopes will be three cohorts of faculty scholars. (Some are jointly funded with the Bill & Melinda Gates and Simons foundations.) In fact, the quality of the first round of applicants—some 1400 from more than 200 institutions—led it to expand its initial plan to select just 70 winners.HHMI eliminated some 90% of the proposals after a vetting by outside experts, and researchers still in the running submitted a 15-minute narrated slide show that was judged without any additional input. “It was really challenging to present your vision of science” in that format, says one of the winners, plant biologist José Dinneny, who will receive $1.25 million.Dinneny’s lab at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California, studies the novel mechanisms that plants use to obtain water to cope with environmental stresses like drought and salinity. He says the HHMI funding gives him “the freedom to pursue ideas at the leading edge.” Federal agencies “are extremely conservative,” he adds, “and the project has to be nearly complete by the time you submit a proposal.”Dinneny grew up in central California, and entered UC Berkeley 1 year after the state eliminated affirmative action in higher education. Although Dinneny believes that funding agencies need to do more to broaden participation in academic research, he says HHMI has “a tough balancing act. Their first goal is to fund the best ideas.” And minority scientists sometimes shy away from competitive programs like the faculty scholars, he adds, because they feel they won’t be successful. “As a Hispanic, I know there is a lot of self-selection,” he notes.At the same time, Dinneny is pleased that HHMI is starting a program for postdocs aimed explicitly at increasing diversity. “There simply aren’t enough minorities going into research careers,” he says. Last week the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), one of the nation’s largest biomedical research charities, offered news about two programs intended to help early-career scientists. One press release announced a new effort to create a more diverse biomedical research workforce through fellowships to postdoctoral students who are black, Latino, or from other underrepresented groups. The other named 84 young faculty members who had just won a prestigious grant aimed at bolstering the next generation of scientific superstars.The timing of the two statements from the Bethesda, Maryland, nonprofit was coincidental. Put side-by-side, however, they unintentionally highlighted the continuing difficulties that the biomedical research community faces in diversifying—both its demographic makeup and also the mix of institutions that tend to win a lion’s share of prestigious awards.  The new Gray fellows effort, named after longtime HHMI trustee Hanna Gray, targets increasing the diversity of postdocs planning academic careers. It’s far from the first attempt by public and private research funders to improve the chronic paucity of blacks, Latinos, and other underrepresented groups in the academic biomedical workforce. 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