Challenges and strategies to increase diversity in the professoriate

By Elizabeth Moses

Underrepresentation of minority groups in the biomedical research workforce, and faculty in particular, has limited the competitiveness and productivity of the research enterprise. While the lack of diversity of medical school faculty has often been blamed on a lack of available talent in the underrepresented-minority pool, a new paper suggests there is no link between the size of the URM talent pool and the number of URM assistant professors hired in basic science departments of medical schools. In contrast, hiring of well-represented assistant professors was closely related to the size of the WR talent pool.

Gibbs et al have provided a systematic perspective on the number of biomedical Ph.D. and assistant professorship scientists from URM and WR backgrounds. In medical-school, basic-science departments, the number of Ph.D. graduates has significantly grown over the past 33 years. Importantly, the growth rate was faster for URM scientists than for scientists from WR backgrounds.

The researchers created a system dynamics model from 33 years of data, capable of capturing the transitions of Ph.D. scientists from URM and WR backgrounds into assistant professor positions. These simulations showed that increasing the size of the talent pool of Ph.D.s from URM backgrounds was not sufficient to increase the representation of these URMs in assistant professors positions when simulated through 2080. Furthermore, increasing the number of assistant professor positions available did not sufficiently increase faculty diversity. Instead, the model predicted that increased diversity would result from increased transition of URM candidates onto the job market and their subsequent hiring.

“This work highlights the real and substantive progress the community has made in expanding the minority Ph.D. pool, but this progress is largely decoupled from faculty hiring (at least in basic science departments),” said Kenneth D. Gibbs, lead author on the report and program director at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. “The work indicates that more needs to be done to ensure the academic community benefits from all the available talent that exists.”

The authors suggest that efforts of improving diversity that focus solely on increasing the talent pool of URM scientists will be insufficient to achieve this goal. Instead, the focus of the research community needs to be on improving the transition of URM candidates to faculty positions. These efforts will require proper mentoring of scientists to ensure that the faculty environment is attractive and inclusive to URMs, ensuring that institutional faculty recruitment, evaluation and retention supports scientists from all backgrounds, and that URM scientists have adequate funding to become independent. The recent NSF alliances seeking to strengthen pathways to the professoriate for URMs can hopefully provide some of this necessary support.

It’s important to note that the model used in this paper assumes no racial bias in hiring. Racial bias in awarding grants has been modeled and demonstrated. Bias in the hiring process against URM scientists would significantly slow diversity efforts. Studies like these, along with alliances and funding opportunities like those from the NSF and HHMI hope to bridge the gap between the large pool of trained URM scientists and their representation in academic research.

headshot_2Elizabeth (Liz) Moses is interested in improving science communication and advocacy and increasing public interest in scientific research. She is currently completing her Ph.D. in Pathology in the program in Immunology at Boston University School of Medicine and is the communications liaison for BU’s Science and Technology in Public Policy organization. Liz can be reached on Twitter (@emoses91) or by email (

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