NIH FIRST Program Bolsters DEI Goals Among Biomedical Faculty

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diversity in biomedical research

Through an ongoing program, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and participating institutions are working to build an inclusive biomedical research field that attracts diverse faculty to address issues of health inequity.

Research from NIH has shown that there is a persistent gap between the number of tenured faculty from marginalized backgrounds compared to the growing number of total underrepresented PhDs. Diverse biomedical faculty have also consistently reported a lower sense of inclusion, trust, and relationships compared to their White colleagues, according to NIH. To address these issues simultaneously, NIH launched the Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation (FIRST) program to advance DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) goals within the biomedical science field.

Funded through the NIH Common Fund — an entity that supports innovative research with broad impact in the scientific community — FIRST’s main objective is to help institutions build a roster of diverse early-career biomedical faculty and scientists who are committed to inclusive excellence. To support this goal, the program heavily emphasizes the development of sustainably inclusive working cultures that incorporate career development, mentorship, and clear progression goals for diverse faculty at participating institutions.

NIH has funded new faculty cohorts each year since 2021, totaling nearly $200 million in five-year grants to 15 colleges and universities. As part of the program, NIH also funded the creation of the FIRST Coordination and Evaluation Center (CEC) at Morehouse School of Medicine, a historically Black institution. The CEC collaborates with the cohort awardees to evaluate and assess the impact of strategies used to create institutional cultural changes.

Grantees are committed to hiring a certain number of new underrepresented faculty within the first three years of the grant, a number that is determined based on the institution’s prior receipt of NIH funding. Limited resource institutions, which received an average of less than $50 million annually from NIH in the three years prior to their application, must employ at least six new faculty, while highly resourced institutions — those that exceed the funding threshold — are required to add 10 or more new underrepresented faculty.

Within the broader context of biomedical science, these faculty cohorts represent a wide variety of research areas, including brain and behavioral sciences, cancer biology, data science, health disparities and equity, infectious diseases and immunology, and neuroscience. Along with the inherent value of expanding DEI within these research fields, program leaders anticipate that greater diversity and support among these scientists will ultimately lead to more equitable health outcomes for underserved communities and populations.

“This program, if successful, will help foster research environments attractive to underrepresented scientists, who can leverage their diverse perspectives and create relevant research to advance knowledge and discovery in their fields and reduce health disparities,” Eliseo Pérez-Stable, MD, director of the National Institute on Minority Health and Disparities, said at the launch of FIRST. “Diversity in the biomedical research workforce promotes innovation, leads to better science, and creates opportunities to make significant progress toward health equity.”●

This article was published in our January/February 2024 issue.