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Institutions Must Support Minority Researchers Impacted by COVID-19

african american researchers in lab
Underrepresented minorities were already struggling with large disparities in funding access and mentorship opportunities in the pre-COVID-19 era. | Rhoda Baer/National Cancer Institute/Wikimedia Commons

Underrepresented minority researchers at academic medical centers have been hit particularly hard by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on scientific communities and research operations, argue scientists in a new article published in the March 10 issue of Science Translational Medicine.

Although almost all faculty and researchers have faced lab closures and other thorny problems due to the pandemic, the authors outline how underrepresented researchers have been disproportionately affected, largely because many already struggled with inequalities and professional obstacles before COVID-19, such as lower grant funding rates and smaller research programs.

The writers call on institutions and medical centers to adapt their funding and hiring practices to better assist underrepresented minority researchers. They also propose several ideas — ranging from "crowdsourcing" university funds to supporting multi-institutional databases — that medical centers could adopt to address the needs of researchers coming out of the pandemic.

Rotonya Carr, associate professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and lead author of the new article, and her co-authors, who represent a group of underrepresented minority researchers at her university, emphasized how she had to draw attention to the challenges that they had been facing.

"After the shutdown of labs and research programs at the start of the pandemic, we discovered that we all had similar worries about the survival of our research programs," Carr said.

"We also realized that while our concerns were similar to those of other researchers at Penn, as underrepresented minority researchers we were especially vulnerable."

The Pernicious Effects of COVID on Academia

COVID-19 has had a massive impact on society, including the scientific and medical research communities. As the world went into lockdown in March 2020, institutions involved in medical research grappled with stark choices as they tried to balance social distancing, maintaining research, and treating the surge of COVID-19 patients.

Many pre-existing projects ground to a halt, as essential resources were redirected to patient care and research into treatments for COVID-19. At the same time, facilities had to close many labs, donate protective equipment to clinical operations, and move large amounts of staff to remote work, further disrupting research operations.

Since then, research faculty have continued to face lab closures, funding shortages, and cancelled conferences, which have all stalled research productivity and professional advancement.

One recent study estimated that since the start of the pandemic, medical research faculty have lost 24% of their research productivity. Groups such as female researchers have been hit even harder due to lost childcare and existing structural barriers, as some scientists pointed out in a recent editorial in Science Advances.

COVID-19 has also had a disproportionate effect on underrepresented minority researchers, who make up 10% of all faculty at academic medical centers, according to the American Association of Medical Colleges.

Pandemic Imposes an Unequal Burden on Minorities

Underrepresented minorities had already been struggling with large disparities in access to funding, mentorship opportunities, and other critical building blocks of scientific careers in the pre-COVID era, Carr argued.

For example, only 6% of all funding from the National Institutes of Health was awarded to Black and Latino researchers in 2019, according to a report on NIH grants. Furthermore, an older study revealed that Black researchers who applied for NIH grants were 10% less likely overall to receive research funding compared to White applicants.

These baseline inequalities have all been magnified and compounded during the pandemic, the researchers point out. First, underrepresented researchers tend to have smaller research programs. Their projects have thus been more susceptible to the financial impact of closures during the start of the pandemic, which reached up to $100,000 in losses per program in the U.S.

Underrepresented minorities also tend to lean more towards physician career tracks, meaning they have been more likely to be asked to cover essential clinical services for critically ill COVID-19 patients. Furthermore, minority and women researchers tend to be called on more frequently for institutional service than their peers, leading to a service burden that some have termed the " minority tax."

"The pandemic amplified long-standing racial health inequities, and many academic medical centers called upon minority faculty to create new practice models focused on diversity, equity and inclusion," Carr said. "While critically important, these responsibilities compounded the pre-COVID 'minority tax' experienced by many minority researchers."

She emphasized that these types of non-research responsibilities aren't traditionally valued in promotion processes at institutions, meaning underrepresented minority researchers in fact risked their career advancement by participating in these activities.

Cost-cutting measures such as hiring freezes and the ubiquity of volunteer-only positions in academia have only made the situation worse. Although these policies negatively impact most researchers and students, underrepresented minorities are particularly vulnerable, as they are less likely to be able to afford unpaid academic positions than their non-minority peers.

A Call to Action for Institutions

Institutions must therefore mobilize and deploy strategies to address these disparities and to support underrepresented researchers, the team argues. They present several concrete proposals that revolve around recalibrating institutional practices and mitigating the effects of the shutdown on scientists and research infrastructure.

Several of their ideas center on new approaches to how institutions manage and pool financial resources. Carr proposed that "crowdsourcing" or pooling resources for administrative and research staff could help support investigators who have lost staff during the shutdown.

Other strategies include creating a "bridge fund" targeted to underrepresented researchers, as well as taking advantage of diversity supplements from the NIH, which Carr said tend to be underused.

Institutions should also change how they approach hiring and promotion practices, she added. Ending the hiring freeze for students and faculty would re-open professional opportunities for many scientists, and extending the timeline on promotion criteria and placing more weight on service would help many underrepresented researchers struggling with the minority tax.

"For minority researchers, academic medical centers need to additionally offer minority-specific mechanisms and track the equitable distribution of institutional resources," Carr said. "To do this successfully, it is imperative that institutions identify, track, and develop a multi-tiered mentorship plan for these minority researchers."

Fortunately, it seems that some institutions have started to take notice. The University of Pennsylvania has already instituted many of the group's ideas, such as extending the promotion clock and establishing a bridge fund.

The NIH also recently announced extensions for training grants and new initiatives aimed at supporting diversity and inclusion at medical centers, Carr said. She hopes that other institutions and academic medical centers will similarly take heart from her proposals.

"We hope that what comes next is that academic medical centers across the country end their hiring freezes and cancellation of in-person training opportunities of students, trainees, and junior faculty, whose careers in science depend on our ability to protect them in times such as this," she said.

"If we don't do this, we will lose a generation of future scientists … a prospect that will be especially devastating to our mission to increase the representation of underrepresented minorities in research."