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Can happy labs increase diversity? Major funder bets big on young scientists

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) is taking a novel approach to the chronic problem of underrepresentation in U.S. academic science: lavishly fund a relatively small number of young scientists and then sit back and let their “happy labs” produce a more diverse workforce.

Today, HHMI announced it will award $8.6 million over the next decade to each of 150 life scientists in tenure-track positions. The unprecedented amount of funding for early-career researchers is expected to draw thousands of applicants. Winners, who will also become HHMI employees, do not themselves need to be from a group underrepresented in science. (In fact, federal law prohibits the use of race or gender as a criterion for hiring.) But a commitment to a diverse, equitable, and inclusive (DEI) work environment is essential.

“Excellence comes first,” says Leslie Vosshall, HHMI’s chief scientific officer, who notes that the winners will be required to spend at least 80% of their time at the bench. “But we’re also looking for people to whom students representing all metrics of diversity will flock, making their labs hotbeds of diversity within the department.”

The $1.5 billion initiative, called the Freeman Hrabowski Scholars Program, is named for the retiring president of the University of Maryland (UMD), Baltimore County, who has spent 30 years perfecting and then replicating the much-admired Meyerhoff Scholars Program to boost the number of minority scientists. Hrabowski, a mathematician who is Black, thinks the new program has great potential for “moving the needle,” as he puts it.

“It takes a scientist to produce another scientist,” he says, endorsing HHMI’s decision to focus on research excellence. “The Hughes brand will be a magnet for attracting talent.” With universities eager to do more to foster diversity, Hrabowski says, the program is also well-timed. “I’m more encouraged by this than by anything I’ve seen since we began Meyerhoff,” he says.

The magnitude of the HHMI program makes it “potentially transformative,” agrees Stephen Thomas, a professor of public health at UMD who also directs the mentoring component of a diversity initiative funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). But Thomas, who is Black, says a well-funded lab doesn’t always translate into an inclusive environment. Excellent scientists of any demographic can fail as mentors, he says. “The current system of training researchers is calcified and creates far too many tormentors instead of mentors,” he asserts.

Mentoring will be key, Thomas says. He notes NIH’s career development grants require applicants to designate a senior scientist who will tutor them. “Who is going to mentor the HHMI scholars?” he asks.

Vosshall says current HHMI investigators—all senior scientists—will fill that role, serving as “buddies” who will advise scholars “on all aspects of developing their research program, coping with setbacks, and mentoring their people.” But Thomas would prefer a more formal arrangement. “It takes a lot of training to become a good mentor,” he says.

We’re … looking for people to whom students representing all metrics of diversity will flock.

  • Leslie Vosshall
  • Howard Hughes Medical Institute

The program’s success will also depend on finding scientists who are truly committed to increasing diversity. “We’ve spent thousands of hours over the last 6 months figuring out how to do that,” Vosshall says. She notes that HHMI rejected one hiring tool used by a growing number of universities trying to diversity their faculty.

“We explicitly did not go the route of ‘diversity statements’ because they more or less look the same,” she says. “In fact, people often cut and paste the statements of others, and you don’t really learn anything.”

Instead, applicants will be asked to discuss their own experiences with discrimination and explain how they would do things differently. For example, she says, “if you have been in a lab where African American or Latinx scientists have not had a happy experience and have been pushed out of science, how are you going to build a space where that doesn’t happen?”

The initial winnowing of what Vosshall predicts may be a pool of 2000 or more applicants will be “based solely on a page and a half response to those questions,” she says, with the identities of the applicants hidden to avoid reviewer bias. The 300 or so who survive that first cut will then be judged entirely on their scientific potential, she adds. The first cohort of 30 winners will be selected in March 2023, and HMMI plans to hold competitions every other year for four subsequent cohorts of similar size.

The success of the program won’t be measured by the diversity of those cohorts, however. Instead, Vosshall plans to use two yardsticks. The first is the relative demographics of the students who train in the winning labs compared with those in other labs. The second is the ability of those students to foster diversity after they get their own academic positions.

“Our expectation is that happy and inclusive labs will attract a more diverse pool of students,” she says about the first goal. As for the second: “I think having 3000 people who have been given the space and the grace to be able to do their science without being constantly under assault will make an enormous difference” when they set up their own labs.

Source: Science Mag