CZI funds new pipeline diversity effort

April 12, 2019

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative recently announced that it was setting up a program intended to increase the recruitment and retention of underrepresented students in STEM. This will be launched as a partnership between the University of California San Diego and Berkeley campuses and the University of Maryland Baltimore County. UMBC has a Meyerhoff Scholars Program (launched in 1988) which focuses on undergraduate students that CZI intends to duplicate at UCB and UCSD.

There’s no indication of a pre-existing prototype at UCB, however the UCSD version will apparently leverage an existing program (PATHS) led by neurobiologist Professor Gentry Patrick.

Under the new CZI collaboration, announced at an April 9 press conference, UC San Diego, UC Berkeley and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) will work toward a goal of replicating aspects of UMBC’s Meyerhoff Scholars Program, recognized as one of the most effective models in the country to help inspire, recruit and retain underrepresented minorities pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in STEM fields. UMBC is a diverse public research university whose largest demographic groups identify as white and Asian, but which also graduates more African-American students who go on to earn dual M.D.-Ph.D. degrees than any other college in U.S.—a credit to the Meyerhoff program model.

I think this is great. Now, look, yes the Meyerhoff style program and this new CZI mimic are both pipeline solutions. And you know perfectly well, Dear Reader, that I am not a fan of pipeline excuses when it comes to the NIH grant award and University professor hiring strategies. Do not mistake me, however. I am still a fan of efforts that make it easier to extend fair opportunity for individuals from groups traditionally underrepresented in the academy, and in STEM fields in particular. I also have a slight brush of experience with what UMBC is doing in terms of encouraging URM students to seek out opportunity for research training. I conclude from this that they are doing REALLY great things in terms of culture on that campus. I would very much like to see that extended to other campuses and this CZI thing would seem to be doing that. Bravo.

So what might be the vision here? Well that all depends on how serious CZI is about this and how much money they have to spend. The Meyerhoff program has a Graduate Fellows wing to support and encourage graduate students. This would be the next step in the pipeline, of course, but hey why not? We’ve just reviewed a SfN program which was only able to be extended to 20% of URM applicants. I would imagine the total amount of URM graduate student support is also less than that needed for most applicants and therefore more graduate fellowships would be welcome. But what about REALLY moving the needle? What could CZI do?

The Science wing of CZI, headed by Cori Bargmann, is setting out to “cure, prevent, or manage all diseases“. Right up at the top of the splash page it talks about the People who “move the field forward“. They go on to say under their approach to supporting projects that they “believe that collaboration, risk taking, and staying close to the scientific community are our best opportunities to accelerate progress in science”. Risk taking. Risk taking. There is one thing that supports risk taking and that is significant and stable research funding. This is something that the Ginther report identified as a particular problem for PIs from some underrepresented groups. It is for certain sure a player in many people’s research program trajectories.

So I’m going to propose that CZI should set their sights on creating a version of what HHMI is doing with membership limited to PIs from underrepresented groups, broadly writ. It is up to them how they want to box this in, of course, but the basic principle would be to give stable research support to those who are less readily able to achieve that because of various biases in, e.g., NIH grant review and selection as well as in the good old boys club that is the HHMI.

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