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Fresh Ideas on Diversity Wanted for New NIH Competition

18 March 2010 3:06 pm
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Is there a new way for academics to promote diversity in science? The National Institutes of Health is betting $10 million that there is.

The money represents NIH's planned investment in a new competition called the Director's Pathfinder Award. NIH is looking for a handful of researchers "willing to try something that would really change the game," says Clifton Poodry of the division of Minority Opportunities in Research within the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which will manage the program. "What haven't we been thinking about? What type of intervention or institutional change would take us to a new level?"

The Pathfinder Award is modeled after the Director's Pioneer Award, an annual prize begun in 2004 that generously funds individuals with potentially transformative research ideas. Pathfinder applicants must devote at least 30% of their time to efforts that will broaden the talent pool in the biomedical, clinical, behavioral, and social sciences. "We want their brains on the job," says Poodry. "It's a bit of a gamble. We're betting on the person to do something great. It's like a MacArthur grant for diversity."

Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a national leader in increasing minority participation in science, agrees that it's precisely those "great" individuals who can make the biggest difference in promoting diversity. "Whatever success we have achieved has had faculty involvement at its core," says Hrabowski, who has nurtured the school's successful Meyerhoff Scholars program. "Too often tenured faculty are not involved in these kinds of activities."

The solicitation, funded through NIH's $10.4-billion stimulus package, invites ideas on efforts at any level, from pre-college through faculty members, although Poodry acknowledges that most of NIH's programs in this area target graduate and postdoctoral students. Hrabowski believes that improving undergraduate retention rates is the key to promoting diversity, adding that his personal definition of success is attracting more students from underrepresented groups into research and then sending them off to graduate school in the sciences. Doing that, he says, requires innovations in teaching, curriculum, mentoring, and every other aspect of the educational process.

The deadline for applications is 4 May. NIH plans a two-step review process, with an initial screening of the six-page proposals followed by personal interviews of the finalists. It anticipates making five, 3-year awards, for $2 million each. In keeping with the requirements of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the money must be committed by 30 September.