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Strengthening and Diversifying the Biomedical Research Workforce Through a National Institutes of Health and Department of Education Collaboration

11.22.22 | 7 min read | Text by Raechel McKinley & Jasmine George & Maeve Skelly


Our nation’s health and the future of scientific research depend on greater inclusion of underrepresented individuals in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields—and in the biomedical sciences in particular. Our nation’s scientists are a homogeneous group: majority white, despite the U.S. population rapidly increasing in diversity. A biomedical science workforce that reflects our nation’s demographics is required to address growing equity gaps and distinct health needs that accompany our diversifying country. This cannot be accomplished without inclusive and practical biomedical educational programs that begin at the PreK–12 level and continue through all levels of higher education, emphasizing Minority Serving Institution (MSI) research programs. 

The lack of diversity in biomedical science is unacceptable, especially for an administration deeply committed to equity across its policy agenda. The Biden-Harris Administration must act to address this issue in the biomedical sciences at all levels: from PreK-12 education to research careers. Using the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration’s program Minority Serving Institution Partnership Program (MSIPP) as a model, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) should establish a Biomedical Research Minority Serving Institution Partnership Program (BioMSIPP) to build a sustainable pipeline between NIH’s institutes and centers and biomedical science students at MSIs. 

Educational interventions are also crucial at earlier stages of education than higher education. BioMSIPP would also include a grant program that funds participating MSIs to produce PreK-12 educational resources (i.e. SEPA tools) and to create a high school to undergraduate bridge program to further link educational interventions with biomedical research careers. We also propose that the Department of Education’s White House Initiative for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), and other MSIs, create community-based engagement plans to assess the needs of individual communities and generate data to aid in future programming. Simultaneously, the Department of Education (ED) should launch a Bright Spots campaign to highlight efforts taking place across the country, building examples for policymakers as roadmaps to bolster biomedical science education and excellence.

Challenge and Opportunity

On June 25, 2021, President Biden signed an executive order establishing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) as national priorities. This order authorized the reestablishing of a coordinated government-wide DEIA Initiative and Strategic Plan. From there, over 50 federal agencies, including ED, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and NIH, released equity action plans, which can be strengthened by supporting meaningful partnerships with MSIs.

MSIs offer broad access to higher education for students who would otherwise not have the opportunity, such as underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities, low-income students, first-generation-to-college students, adult learners, and other post-traditional or nontraditional students. Furthermore, these institutions set an example of DEIA through diverse leadership, administration, and faculty, which is not seen at predominately white institutions (PWIs). The federal government should support institutions that foster diverse talent and the pipelines that feed these institutions through MSI-guided programming for PreK–12 students.

Despite a marginal increase in racially diverse doctorate graduates, there is still a substantial gap in the number of historically marginalized groups that enter and stay in the biomedical enterprise. While there are training programs (see Table 1) to diversify the biomedical sciences at federal agencies such as NIH and NSF, these programs have failed to substantially change the national percentage of racially diverse biomedical scientists. This is in part because the structure of these programs often does not support MSIs in building research capacity, an essential aspect in raising the research classification of an institution determined partly by research spending. In addition, current federal programs do not effectively capture the full spectrum of diverse students since they leave out engagement at the PreK–12 years. 

Early exposure to STEM careers is essential to increased STEM participation and success. In fact, getting children involved in STEM-related activities at a young age has been demonstrated to bolster enrollment in STEM degrees and participation in STEM-related careers. Programs focused on STEM education at the PreK–12 level encourage learning in engineering, technology, and computer-based skills. We propose a focused approach in the field of biomedical science. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, STEM-related occupations are estimated to grow by 10.8 percent in the next 10 years, and biomedical science is estimated to see exponential growth at 17 percent. A sustainable and diverse STEM ecosystem requires education interventions focused on biomedical sciences at an early age. Currently, interventions primarily focus on undergraduate and graduate students, leaving out formative PreK–12 years (Table 1). ED has programs to immerse PreK–12 students into STEM and to support STEM capacity at MSIs through the Title III Higher Education Act, but none focused specifically on biomedical science. 

Department or AgencyProgramPreK-12 programs in the biomedical sciences? 

National Institutes of Health
Maximizing Access to Research CareersNo
National Institutes of HealthMinority Biomedical Research Support ProgramYes (supplement)
National Institutes of HealthResearch Infrastructure in Minority Institutions No
National Institutes of HealthHigh School Scientific Training and Enrichment Program 2.0Yes (high school seniors in DC, VA, or MD only)
National Science FoundationCenters of Research Excellence in Science and Technology Yes (supplement)
National Science FoundationHBCU Research Infrastructure for Science and EngineeringNo
National Science FoundationHispanic Serving Institutions ProgramNo
National Science FoundationDiscovery Research Pre-KYes
Department of DefenseResearch and Education Program for Historically Black Colleges and Universities / Minority-Serving InstitutionsNo
Department of DefenseHistorically Black Colleges and Universities / Minority Serving Institution Science ProgramNo
Department of DefenseHispanic Serving Institutions ProgramNo
Table 1. Federal Programs that Support STEM at MSIs and the Availability of PreK–12 Biomedical Science Programs

Plan of Action

The U.S. Department of Education and the National Institutes of Health should collaborate to create a program that strengthens the biomedical science pipeline. NIH and ED are committed to diversity and inclusion in their respective strategic plans. Leveraging their combined resources to strengthen and diversify the biomedical sciences would work toward the DEIA goals set in their strategic plans and prioritized by the Biden-Harris Administration at large. More importantly, it would take an essential step toward creating a biomedical workforce that represents and serves the diverse makeup of the U.S. population. 

We propose a new program to address the disparities in the biomedical science education pipeline through NIH and ED collaboration by:

Recommendation 1. Establish a Biomedical Research Minority Serving Institution Partnership Program (BioMSIPP) to serve as a direct pipeline from MSIs to the research capacity resources at the Department of Education and the research laboratories at the National Institutes of Health.

The Department of Energy established the Minority Serving Institution Partnership Program to build a “sustainable pipeline between the Department of Energy’s (DOE) sites/labs and minority-serving institutions in STEM disciplines.” This program is an example of direct measures to invest in university research capacity and workforce development through relationships between the federal government and institutions that serve historically marginalized populations. The program consists of a network of DOE/National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) national laboratories, nonprofit organizations, and MSIs through enrichment activities that span from PreK–12 to the postdoctoral level. We recommend that ED and NIH collaboratively fund and implement a similar program that includes a network of highly-funded NIH laboratories, nonprofit organizations, MSIs, and PreK–12 schools that serve historically marginalized communities.

The program should be implemented under ED, with support from NIH’s research resources and laboratories. The Higher Education Act of 2022 requires ED to provide grants for activities such as research capacity building and institutional support. Further, research capacity grants funded through ED allow for hiring administrative staff to support project management. Opening the capability of funding to include staff to support project management circumvents the eligibility requirement where the sponsoring institution must assure support for the proposed program, a possible barrier to entry. 

Recommendation 2. The Department of Education’s White House initiatives for HBCUs, HSIs, and other MSIs should create community-based engagement plans to assess individual community needs and generate data to aid in future programming. 

Diversity in the biomedical sciences is an ever-evolving conversation. Currently, the White House Initiatives for HBCUs and HSIs have working groups that collaborate with other federal agencies to develop best practices to diversify the STEM workforce. First, we charge the White House to expand these working groups to include the entire spectrum of MSIs, as well as to include representation from NIH, providing a crucial biomedical science perspective. Next, the working groups should write a report on best practices to engage with historically marginalized PreK–12 school districts in the biomedical sciences, and in particular, approaches to train teachers in teaching biomedical sciences to historically underrepresented students. 

Recommendation 3. The Department of Education, along with the National Institutes of Health, should launch a Bright Spots campaign to highlight efforts that are taking place across the country to bolster biomedical science education and excellence.

Bright Spots campaigns highlight transformative work done by school districts, nonprofits, and federal agencies in education. NIH and ED both have repositories for science education resources. The NIH funds the Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program, which awards grants to create resources that target state and national PreK–12 standards for STEM teaching and learning and are rigorously evaluated for effectiveness. Likewise, ED funds the Minority Science and Engineering Improvement program to aid MSIs in enhancing their STEM education programs.

We propose that ED and NIH launch a campaign similar to the Bright Spots in Hispanic Education Fulfilling America’s Future spearheaded by the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. Moreover, we charge both agencies with disseminating the campaign via webinars, conference exhibitions, and outreach to educational societies.


ED and NIH are at the forefront of our nation’s biomedical science enterprise and have access to funding, cutting-edge research, and technology that could greatly enhance research and education at every level of the educational spectrum, specifically by increasing diversity. To ensure that the biomedical workforce reflects our nation, we must increase the research capacity and resources available to MSIs, promote collaborative research and technology transfer between investigators from MSIs and NIH, and provide key educational resources for student enrichment and career development. Through these recommendations, we hope to close the achievement gap and propel PreK–12 students into achieving careers in the biomedical sciences.

Frequently Asked Questions
Why Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs)?

Addressing national priorities in innovation demands a larger-scale effort to support incoming students’ education and workforce training. MSIs are an underutilized and underfunded resource for training and strengthening the biomedical research workforce.

How does this proposal differ from existing programs to increase diversity in STEM?

Existing programs at the DoD, NIH, and NSF are limited either to the undergraduate level or to a specific geographic location. Our recommended program is designed for Pre–K to the postdoctoral level, like MSIPP.

How much will this program cost?

We estimate that BioMSIPP will cost about the same as the MSIPP program, which currently costs the Department of Energy $38.8 million.

How does this ensure that students from across the country have access to NIH-funded institutions?