Michael Gottesman


The commitment of the NIH intramural program to excellence in science goes hand in hand with our commitment to a diverse, talented scientific staff. The reports of the External Advisory (Marks-Cassell) Committee (1994), the Committee on the Status of Intramural Minority Scientists (see The NIH Catalyst, July 1994), and the Task Force on the Status of NIH Intramural Women Scientists (see The NIH Catalyst, June 1993) each pointed out deficiencies in representation of women and minority scientists at various levels of training and leadership at NIH. In this column, I report on some progress and problems on our path toward a multi-talented, multi-ethnic community of men and women scientists.

Although currently lacking a complete picture of the intramural program, we have a few windows through which we can gauge the changing demographics of our staff. The impression of a diverse population of NIH postdoctoral fellows is supported by the most recent data, which show an almost equal number of U.S. (IRTA) and foreign postdocs (visiting fellows), a goal established a decade ago when the IRTA program was initiated but achieved for the first time only last month. Our visiting fellows come from more than 80 different countries, providing NIH with a rich tapestry of different scientific training, points of view, and cultural heritage. The vast majority of these visiting fellows return home after their training through this scientific exchange. Our population of IRTA fellows has a gender distribution close to that of recent graduates in biological science, as evidenced by the self-identified pool of applicants for the Fellows' Awards for Research Excellence (FARE). About 35% of the applicants in this recent competition among NIH fellows for travel money were women, as were 32% of the award winners. Unfortunately, we do not have any reliable current information about the distribution of underrepresented minorities among our fellows.

It is good to see the increasing visibility of minority and women postdocs and other scientists through the efforts of the Women Scientist Advisors, the Black Scientist Association, and the Asian/Pacific American Heritage Committee at NIH. Recruitment of minority fellows to NIH continues to be a high-priority goal. One area in which minority recruitment has been extremely successful is among our clinical associates. A two-year-old loan-repayment program for physicians from disadvantaged backgrounds who are participating in clinical research has led to the recruitment of 19 clinical associates, most of whom are underrepresented minorities.


NIH's future scientific leadership is reflected now among our tenure-track scientists. The establishment of a clearly defined tenure track two years ago has made it possible to get a clearer picture of the future demographics of NIH tenured scientists. The news is generally encouraging. Among the 202 current tenure-track scientists, 30% are women, 21% are minorities and 8.5% are underrepresented minorities (4% African American, 4% Hispanic, and 0.5% Native American). Lest we congratulate ourselves too hastily for this progress, it should be noted that current trends are not in the right direction. Of the 33 latest additions to the tenure track who were identified as a result of a search process carefully crafted to encompass both excellence and diversity, nine were women and six were Asian American, but, unfortunately, there were no underrepresented minorities. I find this statistic quite worrisome, and we are currently redoubling efforts to recruit underrepresented minorities into our tenure-track program.

The Central Tenure Committee now has a two-year track record in making recommendations for appointment to tenure. Forty-seven scientists have been considered by the committee, and 35 (74%) were approved at the time of first review. An additional six were approved after further review, bringing to 87% the overall approval rate of the committee. In the past two years, only three of the six women proposed for tenure received it. No underrepresented minorities were brought forward for tenure during this two-year period, but both of the Asian Americans brought forward were tenured. It is too soon to know the significance of these numbers since they represent small cohorts of scientists whose careers were initiated almost 10 years ago at NIH, but we are watching carefully to be sure that there is no inherent bias against either women or minorities achieving tenure at NIH. Of the eight Senior Biomedical Research Service scientists recruited from the outside over the past two years, two were women and one was Hispanic.

Parallel to these improvements, women at NIH have increasing representation among our section chiefs (18% this year compared with 13% in 1992) and lab and branch chiefs (10% this year compared with 4% in 1992). Compared with 1992, when NIH had only one female scientific director, two of our scientific directors are women today. In addition, two acting scientific directors are women.

One major problem that has made it difficult to evaluate the demographics, research interests, and productivity of NIH scientists is the lack of a uniform, central database from which such demographic data can be easily extracted. We are now planning to assemble such a database.

The statistics we do have now, however spotty, suggest that NIH is moving steadily but slowly toward our goal of a diverse and multi-talented community of scientists. Increased efforts to recruit, train, and retain our women and minority scientists will improve our ability to provide opportunities for a diverse group of highly motivated and capable individuals. This, in turn, will enhance the development of the novel ideas and strategies for the medical research to which NIH is dedicated. Our efforts must go forward at all levels of our scientific staff, and I urge all of you to become part of this process.

Michael Gottesman
Deputy Director for Intramural Research

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