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How to Promote DE+I in Life Sciences  

Last month the National Institute of Health released their new plan to combat structural racism and improve upon DE&I in life sciences. The NIH is the largest funder of biomedical research in the United States, granting around $40 billion a year for research. Thus, these plans will have large implications on who does research, what will be researched, and how research will be conducted. 

The NIH plan tackles systemic racism by closing the grant gap between white and minority researchers and by increasing the funding for research about health disparities. Additionally, the NIH plans to expand the program that supports researchers from minority racial and ethnic groups from recruitment to retention. Lastly, the NIH will appoint diversity and inclusion officers at every institute and center.  

Though the scientific community is encouraged by the NIH’s plans, many DE+I advocates were underwhelmed by the efforts. To make lasting changes, they argue, the NIH needs to further increase their funding. Additionally, DE+I advocates argue increasing funding for health disparity research alone pushes Black researchers into an area they may not want to study. Instead, they believe more direct routes, such as prioritizing funding for diverse groups of researchers will be more effective.  

Opportunities for DE+I Improvement in Life Sciences 

The NIH’s plan is just the beginning of a long-term solution but there are many problems in the life sciences industry that still need to be addressed. 

Workforce: The benefits of diverse teams are robust and well-known. Diversity increases employee comfort and satisfaction, sparks creativity, and accelerates top line growth for companies. Despite the knowledge of these benefits, the life sciences industry fails to represent a cross-section of the United States. According to Pew Research Center, Black employees make up 11% of the U.S. workforce, but only 9% of the STEM workforce. These numbers are even more disparate for Hispanics, who make up 16% of the U.S. workforce, but only 7% of the STEM workforce. Increasing representation within life sciences companies will mean teams are more mindful of diverse experiences and intentional about promoting inclusivity in the workplace. 

Research and Development: Another area in which life sciences needs improvement relative to diversity, equity, and inclusion is in research and development. There exists a huge gap in scientific knowledge across racial and ethnic lines. Medical and market research conducted by life sciences companies lack equal representation. In 2019, a JAMA oncology study noted that only 63% of studies used to gain FDA approval of cancer drugs included information of participant race. On average, more than 75% of the participants identified as white. As a result, the effect of cancer drugs on minority groups are not as well understood. This also results in racial and ethnic groups’ responses to treatments, personal preferences, and unique experiences are overlooked. There are identified barriers to recruitment in clinical trials including mistrust and lack of access to participation. The mistrust comes from a long history of medical and research abuse to African Americans, including the Tuskegee syphilis study. Access to participation also stems from financial barriers, which lead to inability to travel to sites and take time off work. These factors and more result in decreased opportunities for minority populations to access the same quality of care and opportunities as others. In 2010, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that Black people, American Indians, and Alaska Natives received worse care than White people for about 40% of their quality of care measures. To attract diverse audiences and offer better products and services, research and development teams should consider implementing DE+I principles in their research practices. 

Clinical Trial Recruitment: The lack of diversity in research groups extends itself to clinical trial recruitment. In February, a JAMA Network Open study examined the interventional vaccine trials completed from July 2011 to June 2020. The data revealed that White individuals were overrepresented 77.9% of the time, while Black and Hispanic or Latino individuals were represented 10.6% and 11.6% of the time, respectively. This is a result of many barriers identified by the Hopkins Biotech Network. One such barrier is the lack of patient engagement plans, which means doctors don’t have time to teach patients about clinical trials or may feel uncomfortable doing so. Additionally, the need for medicine in the pharmaceutical industry leads companies to take expedited pathways for approval, which deprioritizes clinical trial diversity. Lastly, certain minority groups are wary about participation due to economic, linguistic, or cultural barriers. 

Best Practices for Addressing DE+I Concerns 

The first step to any DE+I strategy is to measure the diversity, equity and inclusion in your business. Launching DE+I climate surveys is a great way to better understand how employees feel about DE+I related issues in the workplace. You can also analyze data you may already have to get a better understanding of equity within the organization. Another great tool for understanding how people in your organization interact is network analyses. With these different measures of DE+I, your company can better identify main areas that need improvement and create key priorities.   

Next, you want to strategically plan your DE+I organizational strategy. This involves defining your company’s guiding principles, main goals, and metrics. By clearly outlining a strategy and putting your company’s values into actionable goals, you will be more likely to achieve them.  

To best address the life sciences research DE+I issues, you can start with these simple steps: 

  1. Create educational programs for clinical trials that dispel common myths, such as “participants are guinea pigs,” “participants don’t get their results” and “you are likely to get a placebo.” 
  2. Develop more intentional and inclusive marketing campaigns that leverage trusted institutions and influencers for underrepresented communities. 
  3. Remove barriers to access by compensating for travel or establishing locations closer to participants for research and treatment. 

To help with this process, reach out to our diversity and inclusion consulting team. Our unique Clarkston Enterprise Destination Mapping for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (EDM for DE+I) tool creates a people-focused DEI organizational strategy by identifying key milestones, providing timelines and actionable steps, and a careful analysis of risks and mitigation techniques. Clarkston’s EDM for DE+I methodology can help you launch your DE+I strategy and address the DE+I concerns in your company and the life sciences industry. 

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Coauthor and contributions by Maggie Wong

Tags: Diversity + Inclusion, Life Sciences Trends