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Duke Scientist Advocates for Systemic Diversity in Research

Programs that uplift diversity in the professional scientific community like those at the National Institutes of Health are essential for the advancement of medical research, Duke University Professor Dr. Kafui Dzirasa said during a Research America webinar last week. 

Dzirasa, an NIH-funded psychiatrist who studies the relationship between neural circuits and mental illnesses, advocated in support of the 2017 American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, which looks to diversify academia by bringing in talent from different backgrounds to generate better scientific work products. 

“If we don’t succeed in this going forward, ultimately we’re going to have a country that produces less science — science that continues to deliver what we call hand-me-down science to certain parts of the population,” Dzirasa said. “The scientific enterprise in a whole will be harmed, and I think it’s important to appreciate this as you think about U.S. science in a global enterprise.”

America stands to lose its scientific competitive advantage and edge if it fails to uplift diversity in representation and thought leadership, he added.

As part of the initiative to boost diversity in academia and research, NIH launched the Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation — or FIRST — program last year. The grant program invested $240 million over 10 years to support diverse cultures and perspectives in the biomedical research community.

Dzirasa argued that given past disparities in funding for black scientists from NIH grants — about $75 million per year, according to a 2011 NIH study — NIH and other research institutions should do more to uplift people of color in the research community.

“There’s still a funding difference, and if you calculate it out, this still counts for about two to three grants per institute per year, and thinking about the large grants at around $3 million per year, that ends up being on the order of $74 million per year that is under invested in black scientists in this country per year,” Dzirasa said. “That $75 million per year over 10 years is about $750 million. Certainly something that, while the NIH FIRST grant is going to be closing that difference, it certainly doesn’t meet the level of investment that’s necessary to make sure that firsthand science is being done and ultimately that everybody is benefiting from the treatments and cures that are available in this country.”

Dzirasa cited the lack of representation of individuals with ancestry outside of Europe in genomic research for precision medicine as one consequence for not investing in support for scientists of color. He said that without further diverse representation in these genomic studies, precision medicine will be “hand-me-down cures” for black and Hispanic populations. 

“Many of the studies that were being done at the time, they were essentially largely populated by individuals of European ancestry,” Dzirasa said of the rise of precision-medicine studies. “As these large-scale studies come out, we’re finding patterns of genes that gave risk for schizophrenia and gave risk for bipolar disorder and autism. What was disturbingly clear was that the studies didn’t have a substantial number of individuals from African ancestry.”

These studies would have upward of 100,000 individuals’ genomes involved, but little to none from African ancestry, Dzirasa continued. Without African ancestry represented in the genomic studies, applying consequent solutions from those studies in precision medicine would not be adequate for treating the black community, he added.

Dzirasa attributed lack of representation in the experimentation design phases as the reasoning behind the lack of representation in those programs. This broader problem in the medical research and scientific community makes it critical for the nation to focus on diversity and inclusion systemically.

“It’s really time for our nation to be serious about investing in the next generation of scientists, figuring out how to mine that diverse talent from all backgrounds, in all perspectives,” Dzirasa said. “Bring them and support them in the scientific architecture and enterprise such that we can continue to do the best science, to drive the best cures for people in this country, as well as make sure that the U.S. can compete in the global scientific enterprise.”