From the BRAIN Director: Diversity as a Means of Achieving Research Excellence

Dr. John Ngai, BRAIN Initiative Director

“We stand on the verge of a great journey into the unknown – the interior terrain of thinking, feeling, perceiving, learning, deciding, and acting to achieve our goals – that is the special province of the human brain … No single researcher or discovery will solve the brain’s mysteries.” – BRAIN 2025 strategic vision

We often refer to it, this amazing and multitalented organ, as “the” brain. However, each of our brains is unique, and those distinctions contribute significantly to our collective humanity. As has been shown across sectors including business, education, and healthcare, diversity of thought and action promotes productivity and innovation. Put simply, we’re more likely to achieve better outcomes when all ideas are considered, as they reflect the breadth and depth of the human experience.

However, it’s probably not news to anyone reading this blog post that the NIH-funded scientific workforce (of which BRAIN is a subset) does not reflect the rich diversity of the United States. According to our analysis of BRAIN Initiative investigator demographics spanning the period fiscal years 2014 through 2020, fewer than 20% of BRAIN principal investigators (PIs) or multiple PIs (MPIs) are women. BRAIN-funded scientists from underrepresented minority groups (URM scientists) account for fewer than 7% of all BRAIN PIs/MPIs (with the caveat that up to 20% of BRAIN investigators do not provide NIH with their race and ethnicity information). Other analyses reveal that although nearly half of BRAIN projects are collaborative (consisting of more than one PI), most MPI teams are male and non-URM. This lack of diversity is keeping us from reaching our full potential in addressing the highly complex scientific problems of our field and biomedicine more generally.

Thus, we need to redouble our efforts to diversify the BRAIN talent pool and make sure that we’re not leaving any talent on the sidelines. And it’s important to remember that diversity covers many realms beyond gender and race/ethnicity. Many other aspects of our lives that shape us as individuals invite different ways of thinking that drive innovation and novel perspectives, including geographic origin, sexual orientation, physical ability, socioeconomic status, age, among others. All these characteristics influence the way we ask questions and solve problems; science always benefits from a diverse set of eyes on a problem. Attracting researchers from different backgrounds and disciplines and providing opportunities for them to work together will play an important role in driving innovation in BRAIN over the coming years.

As you have likely heard, NIH has recently announced a comprehensive approach to addressing structural racism, one driver of our too-homogenous scientific workforce. Because systemic factors including human, institutional, and even topic biases are commonplace in biomedicine, we have established a set of new review criteria to promote diversity and inclusion in BRAIN-funded research. The BRAIN Plan for Enhancing Diverse Perspectives (PEDP) encourages the research community to broadly consider how diverse perspectives advance the proposed specific aims and are integral to equity and inclusion in the science they perform (see an FAQ and examples).

An icon for DEI efforts in BRAIN, showing 7 people in a circle

Moving forward, most BRAIN funding opportunity announcements will now require that applications include a PEDP within the proposed research plan (applications submitted without such a plan will be considered incomplete and will be withdrawn prior to peer review). Evaluation of an applicant’s PEDP will be made during the peer review stages as part of the scorable criteria and during programmatic reviews and will be used to inform funding decisions – a first for NIH. In addition to the PEDP requirement, several other programs for diversifying the BRAIN workforce are already in place. These include BRAIN Diversity Supplements, the BRAIN K99/R00 Award, the D-SPAN F99/K00 Award, expanded access to scaled production and distribution of neurotechnology resources at under-resourced institutions, and the NIH-wide Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation (FIRST) and UNITE initiatives.

Diversity is vital for science. It fosters scientific innovation, enhances global competitiveness, contributes to robust learning environments, and improves the quality of research. In accord with the NIH mission, promoting diversity and inclusion across the BRAIN research portfolio promotes trust among researchers and beneficiaries of the science we fund.

We therefore must work with renewed focus and intention to achieve our full potential as a research community. Diversity cannot be an afterthought. Rather, creating diverse and inclusive environments must be baked into the way we ask questions, how we recruit research teams and research participants, and to whom we disseminate the tools and treatments that come of this work. I believe that through these collective efforts, we can bring about the culture change necessary to address the inequities and systemic biases in biomedical research, and advance scientific innovation and excellence through the inclusion of all voices.

With respect and gratitude,

John Ngai, Ph.D.

Director, NIH BRAIN Initiative