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Mentoring's moment

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Science  02 Sep 2016:
Vol. 353, Issue 6303, pp. 980-982
DOI: 10.1126/science.353.6303.980

NIH's new mentoring network aims to improve success rates for minority grant applicants. But it faces long odds.

Blake Riggs, a biologist at San Francisco State University in California, talks with undergraduate Iris Avellano (right) and lab tech Mark Velasquez (left).

PHOTO: NOAH BERGER

Growing up in a working-class neighborhood of South Los Angeles, California, Blake Riggs was 1 day away from enlisting in the U.S. Navy when the University of California (UC), Santa Cruz, admitted him in 1992. Riggs, who is black, hoped to major in marine biology. And his plans got a big boost when he was chosen for the Minority Access to Research Careers program, a long-running effort funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to help minority students launch their scientific careers.

But Riggs crashed soon after takeoff. Riggs says an instructor in the dolphin lab where he was assigned to work told him that other students were more qualified, and implied that he only got the job because of his race. Over the next several months, Riggs says he was denied access to the physiological data he was supposed to collect. And rather than standing up for his student, Riggs's faculty adviser lectured him on the need to do his own research and ultimately booted him out of his group.

Riggs was determined to remain in science, however, and a cell biologist offered him a lab job—and some crucial mentoring. With that support, Riggs finished his undergraduate degree and later returned to UC Santa Cruz to earn his Ph.D. in cell biology. In 2010, he joined the biology faculty at San Francisco State University (SFSU) in California; this spring, at age 41, he received tenure.

The only African-American faculty member in his department, Riggs has paid homage to the importance of mentors in his own career by making mentoring a priority. Students of color comprise the majority in his lab. Last December, the National Science Foundation gave Riggs a prestigious CAREER award to expand to the entire campus a student “near-peer” mentoring program he created as well as to support his own research, on asymmetrical cell division.

Diversity advocates have long believed that mentoring holds the key to increasing minority participation in U.S. science. NIH acknowledged its importance in October 2014 by launching the 5-year, $22 million National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN) as part of a larger, multipronged, 10-year initiative to enhance the diversity of the biomedical workforce.

NRMN—“Norman” to insiders—is NIH's biggest ever focused investment in mentoring. But it is off to a rocky start. Even before it was publicly announced, divisions within the diversity community prompted NIH officials to take the unusual step of adding to its leadership team a scientist who had been part of a group that lost out in the competition to create the network. And earlier this year, the principal investigator (PI) for the multisite network, which is based at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, resigned after continuing conflicts with NIH officials over NRMN's direction, leaving it in disarray.

NIH has spent billions of dollars over the past 40 years on programs aimed at removing obstacles to participation by underrepresented groups, a category that also includes Latinos, Native Americans, people with disabilities, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. But it has little to show for it, officials acknowledge. “We are far short of where we want to be,” NIH Director Francis Collins in Bethesda, Maryland, said on the day NRMN was announced.

Some diversity advocates are worried that unfortunate track record may continue despite the new initiative. In particular, they fear that NIH may end support for NRMN after 5 years if the network falls short of some short-term, quantitative goals.

“If you're looking for meaningful outcomes at the end of 5 years, then you might as well pull the plug now, because [NRMN] is going to fail,” predicts Donald Wilson, co-founder of the Association for Academic Minority Physicians (AAMP), which since 1968 has pushed for increased minority participation in academic medicine. Wilson, a retired medical school dean in Owings Mills, Maryland, who is a part of NRMN's administrative core, says “many of us are concerned that if NIH officials don't see results immediately, they will say, ‘Too bad, we tried. But that's the best we can do.’” (NIH officials say they will assess NRMN in the same way they would judge any large project.)

THE MENTORING NETWORK and NIH's larger diversity initiative are the products of an unusual exercise in bureaucratic self-examination. In 2008, then–acting NIH Director Raynard Kington gave Donna Ginther, an economist at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, and other outside scholars unprecedented access to confidential data on the agency's grants process. The goal was to explore possible racial bias in grant awards.

Their findings were a bombshell: A black applicant's chance of winning an R01 grant—NIH's bread-and-butter research award—was 10 percentage points lower than a white colleague's (Science, 19 August 2011, p. 925). Only 185 black applicants were funded between 2000 and 2006, for example; the number would have been 337 if blacks had been funded at rates equal to whites. (Such disparities have persisted, NIH officials reported this summer [Science, 17 June, p. 1379]. The comparison was between those with similar credentials. An in-house analysis of a more recent cohort of 1054 matched pairs of applicants found that black grant seekers were 35% less likely to be successful than whites.)

The Ginther report, as it became known, didn't address whether the disparity exists because minority applicants were victims of discrimination or simply because their proposals were less competitive. But it drove home the lack of diversity in NIH's applicant pool. Black people, for instance, made up just 1.4% of the some 83,000 applicants included in the study, although they constitute 13% of the U.S. population.

The 2014 diversity initiative is essentially NIH's response to the Ginther report. Its biggest component is the Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD) program, in which 10 minority-serving institutions expect to receive $20 million to $25 million over 5 years to improve the undergraduate experience for underrepresented students majoring in the life sciences. Many of those universities already run other NIH programs with a similar goal, but NIH officials say that the BUILD initiative is designed to test the efficacy of specific approaches in a much more rigorous way than has been done to date. Those experiments will be monitored by a team at UC Los Angeles, which will also be coordinating links between NRMN and BUILD and evaluating the impact of the entire diversity initiative.

FOR DAVID BURGESS, a cell biologist at Boston College, NIH's 2013 announcement of a competition for a national mentoring network was “the opportunity I'd been waiting for my whole career.” A member of the Cherokee tribe and a former president of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, Burgess has spent 4 decades mentoring students from groups underrepresented in science. He also has served on numerous advisory panels that have urged U.S. government agencies to improve the diversity of the scientific workforce.

After winning one of seven planning grants, Burgess joined forces with three other first-round winners to create what became the winning NRMN proposal. It has several components. Burgess would lead the administrative core. Molecular geneticist Jamboor Vishwanatha, at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth, would create an online mentoring network for budding researchers to connect with senior academic mentors anywhere in the nation. For the first time, students at smaller or less research-intensive institutions would be able to learn from the best in the business, not just from those on their campus. So far, 1146 mentors have signed up to work with 2078 students.

A third element, based at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and led by cell biologist Christine Pfund, would train faculty to become better mentors. “Just because you had a good mentor doesn't mean that you know how to do it,” says Pfund, who has spent more than a decade studying how to improve the training of both new and veteran faculty members.

A fourth component, run by Kola Okuyemi of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, would help postdocs and junior faculty better understand the NIH grantsmaking process. “We're investing in people who are close to applying for an R01,” he says. Such training would be especially helpful for scientists at institutions with relatively little NIH funding and, thus, few faculty members who have successfully navigated the system.

From the beginning, however, there were grumblings from the minority research community about the makeup of the NRMN team and its ability to connect with its intended audience. Leaders of minority-serving institutions, some with medical schools, were upset that NIH chose Boston College, a largely white, Jesuit institution without a medical school, to lead the mentoring network.

Some advocates took their complaints directly to senior NIH officials, including Collins. Their intervention ultimately paid off when NIH took what many agency observers say is an unusual action: expanding NRMN by adding a PI from a proposal that had lost to the submission from Burgess's team. The new PI, cardiologist Elizabeth Ofili of the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, leads an NIH-funded network of research centers at minority-serving institutions focused on translational medicine, and she brought that network into NRMN. NIH also directed NRMN to fund Wilson and AAMP to conduct a training session on mentoring for AAMP members and other national leaders at the group's annual meeting.

Obstacles to success for black scientists include a shallow pool …CREDITS: (GRAPHIC) G. GRULLÓN/SCIENCE; (DATA) NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH

Collins has declined to talk with Science about how NRMN was assembled. But Lawrence Tabak, principal deputy NIH director, says that the changes were made “to ensure appropriate outreach to all communities. We took a look at the mix of opportunities, and we thought that we could enhance what was already present by expanding it.”

It took Burgess and the NRMN team months, however, to integrate the new PI and activities demanded by NIH. Then, just 1 year into the award, NIH officials wrote a sharply critical report of NRMN's management. They were especially unhappy with what they characterized as slow progress in developing the online mentoring component of the network. Feeling that NIH had lost confidence in his leadership, and weighed down by the continuing tensions, Burgess stepped down shortly after the NRMN team received the report last December. Boston College will continue to manage the network.

BURGESS'S DEPARTURE “was a big shock to the system,” Pfund says. And some diversity advocates say the program's travails pose a larger question: Will NIH's response to Ginther actually increase the number of underrepresented minorities in the agency's applicant pool anytime soon?

Some of the factors causing the award disparity are beyond NIH's control to fix, they note. The agency is in a poor position to address the lifelong negative effects of poverty, for instance, or the low-quality education many students from underrepresented groups receive before attending college. There's also the sorry legacy of covert and overt discrimination within academia. And NIH can't change the fact that most life science majors don't earn biomedical Ph.D.s, that most Ph.D.s won't enter academia, and that most academics will never apply for an R01 grant, much less obtain one. So even if NRMN is successful at enrolling and mentoring large numbers of minority students and faculty members, its efforts may not translate into higher success rates for minority applicants on R01 grants.

But even actions within NIH's reach, such as funneling resources to programs aimed at underrepresented minorities, carry political and legal peril. The dangers include potential lawsuits from critics claiming that such programs amount to reverse discrimination. NIH's response to that threat has been to insist that NRMN and other programs aimed at fostering diversity be open to all students and faculty members, not just minorities. But that broad scope may dilute their impact on the problem.

Another challenge is the relatively short duration of the NRMN and BUILD programs (a 5-year award with the possibility of a 5-year renewal). It means that few of the students and faculty involved will be ready to apply for an NIH grant before the effort ends.

In the meantime, Riggs represents both the promise of programs like NRMN—and how hard it will be to achieve the changes NIH seeks. He's already signed up for NRMN's fledgling online mentoring network, and is working with a minority student attending graduate school in Arkansas. He's also served as a liaison between NRMN and the BUILD project based at SFSU and UC San Francisco.

Despite all of his efforts, Riggs says his own odds of becoming part of NIH's R01 grant pool remain poor. Although NIH has funded his lab through a program for minority-serving institutions that receive relatively little NIH funding, Riggs has never applied for an R01 grant. “The people in the grants office keep telling me to apply, but I don't think our proposal would be competitive,” he says. “[SFSU] doesn't have a Ph.D. program, and NIH doesn't have a history of funding people from master's programs.”

Although he'd like NRMN to succeed, Riggs concedes that “they're kinda stalled right now.” NRMN's Pfund agrees. “It's been uphill so far,” she told Science earlier this year. “But the promise remains. The next 3 years offer us a real opportunity to demonstrate not only the value of mentoring, but also to learn how to do it better.”

Correction (2 September 2016): This story has been revised to reflect the fact that Blake Riggs is one of several minority faculty members in the biology department.

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