Q&A with David Burgess: NIH National Research Mentoring Network
January 13, 2015 | Author: AAAS MemberCentral Blogger Daryl E. Chubin
In October 2014, NIH announced $31 million in awards “to develop new approaches to engage researchers from underrepresented backgrounds” in preparation for scientific careers. One of the awards, implemented in response to NIH’s Advisory Committee to the Director’s Working Group on Diversity in the Biomedical Research Workforce, established the NIH National Research Mentoring Network, or NRMN. AAAS MemberCentral blogger Daryl E. Chubin posed five questions to the NRMN lead principal investigator, Dr. David Burgess. Here are his responses.
MC: The NIH National Mentoring Network (NRMN) is one of three awards made under the “Enhancing Diversity in the NIH-funded Workforce” program. Please describe the collaborating organizations in NRMN and the niche they fill in your efforts.
DB: The NIH Common Fund has invested in a program of three highly integrated initiatives whose aim is to enhance the diversity of the NIH-funded workforce. This consortium of 12 awards aims to develop, implement and evaluate approaches to encourage individuals from diverse backgrounds to enter into, succeed and persist in biomedical research careers. The hope is that these transformative approaches to student engagement, research training, mentoring, faculty development and infrastructure development will complement ongoing investments in diversity to significantly enhance the participation of those underserved in the biomedical workforce.
NRMN is foremost an experiment. It operates via four cores led by its four principal investigators. The Administrative Core, headquartered at Boston College and led by me, is responsible for integrating efforts across the cores, communication, interacting with the NIH and the Coordination and Evaluation Center (CEC), and administering a RFA Project Grants Program. The Professional Development Core, at the University of Minnesota and led by Kola Okuyemi, is focusing on working with postdoctoral fellows and junior faculty to enhance their success at obtaining federal grants. The Mentor Training Core, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and led by Christine Pfund, is focusing on training mentors to work with a diverse set of mentees by developing culturally responsive mentor-training workshops and programs. Finally, the Mentorship and Networking Core, at the University of North Texas Health Sciences Center led by Jamboor Vishwanatha, is developing a major website that will match mentees with mentors and serve as a resource for training activities, networking, communication, synchronous and asynchronous activities and information.
MC: How is NRMN expected to interact with the other two initial projects, Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD) and the Coordination and Evaluation Center (CEC)?
DB: Incorporated into this funding mechanism are direct interactions between NRMN, BUILD institutions, and the CEC. For instance, the Mentor Training Core has a forthcoming train-the-trainer workshop where BUILD institutions are invited to bring faculty who can return to their home and partner institutions to run their own mentor-training workshops. NRMN, BUILD and the CEC are now working on development of the evaluation tools and the hallmarks of success by which we will work and measure progress. Further, BUILD institutions and their partners are natural places for NRMN to recruit and train mentors and seek mentees to participate in NRMN. However, NRMN is also mandated to be national in scope and will work with all institutions.
MC: What do you consider your biggest challenge, given the plethora of mentoring organizations and programs? Furthermore, what’s different about providing such services in biomedicine, and indeed, to NIH-funded institutions and individuals?
DB: There is a wonderful set of mentoring organizations also focusing on diversifying science and they are our partners in this initiative. Each organization is focused in its scope, and yet based on the data provided by the NSF on the numbers of students already in the pipeline at the undergraduate through doctorate levels, a vast majority of underrepresented students lack access to mentoring or professional development. By providing a project of national scale we hope to reach all who desire mentoring. As for the focus on biomedicine, this initiative results from the stark realization that the biomedical workforce, especially at the institutions receiving the most NIH funding, is not diverse. This is especially so with the NIH grantee population. While these institutions and their leaders endorse and support initiatives to diversify their faculty and clinicians, they need new ideas to address this issue. America’s changing demographics coupled with continuing challenges in health disparities calls for a workforce that reflects a diversity of researchers and their insights into reducing minority-majority health disparities.
MC: How would you respond to the cynical among us who say that $31 million in fiscal year 2014 allocated to diversity is a smidgen of the NIH budget? How do you assuage concerns that diversity must be addressed both in RO1 awards and in initiatives to reduce persistent minority-majority health disparities instead of marginalized in a separate program?
DB: It is important to realize that this initiative is only one focused program. There are many other NIH programs out of all the Institutes that support a wide variety of training activities focused on increasing diversity. The resources of this program will support some new experiments on a national scale. Indeed, to be supported by the NIH Common Fund out of the Office of the Director raises the visibility, credibility, opportunity and pressure for success of this project. In parallel, the Center for Scientific Review at the NIH is experimenting to determine if, for instance, there is implicit bias in the review process affecting the success of African American or domestic-born Hispanics in their application for R01 funding. The expectation is that some of these new experiments may succeed in increasing the success and opportunity for minorities to fully participate in biomedical research.
MC: How will we know that NRMN is succeeding, and more generally that NIH’s investment in these first awards and those to come are having desired impacts on the biomedical workforce?
DB: It is the charge of the CEC to carefully evaluate both the BUILD and NRMN awards to measure “success.” Of course, this means that the key hallmarks of success are calibrated to the scale of the investment. These hallmarks of success are now being development by the CEC in partnership with NRMN and the BUILD institutions. The fact that evaluation and assessment are being embedded from the beginning in this project assures that proper metrics will be developed and that “success” can be quantified. NRMN may have survived peer review, but only careful and independent evaluation will tell us if our ideas and activities lead to successful outcomes.