Why the life sciences leave people of color behind

And how COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement could mark a turning point.

NIH NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH sign emblem seal on gateway center entrance building at NIH campus.

NIH NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH sign emblem seal on gateway center entrance building at NIH campus. DCStockPhotography/ Shutterstock

As COVID-19 has rampaged across the country, it has laid bare the stark racial divides in American medical care. Black and Latino people are more likely to be infected with the coronavirus, are hospitalized with it at nearly three times the rate of white people, and have died of it twice as often, federal figures show. People of color have been more hesitant to get vaccinated, whether it’s due to a lack of access or distrust of a system with a history of misleading and mistreating Black patients. The medical establishment has been exposed for neglecting to invest in public health – and for failing to pay enough attention to poverty, pollution and other societal problems that disproportionately harm racial minorities.

These divisions extend to the underlying biomedical sciences and the life sciences as a whole, which are dominated by white men. Fewer than 2% of senior investigators funded by the National Institutes of Health are Black, and just 4% of them are Hispanic. At biotech companies, Black people made up 7% of the workforce and 3% of management jobs at biotech companies, well below their 13% share of the U.S. population, a 2017 study by Nature Biotechnology found. The same study found that Hispanics – about 18% of the population – made up 6% of the workforce and 4% of management positions. Other studies have documented gender and racial disparities in the so-called STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – fields and scant signs of progress over the years.

“It’s not really just simple underrepresentation, but it’s actually a kind of historical exclusion and systematic marginalization because of the impact of systemic racism,” said Raeka Aiyar, vice president of scientific outreach at the New York Stem Cell Foundation. “This pipeline is also a leaky pipeline. We’re losing not only ethnic minorities but also women at a disproportionate rate the higher you can climb up the ladder.”

Even in such a racially diverse place as New York, where taxpayer dollars and investors have cultivated a thriving ecosystem of biotech startups, many top executives in the sector are white men. For example, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the creation of a 15-member Life Science Advisory Board in 2018, only two people of color were included, one a pharmaceutical CEO based in Boston, while 11 members were men. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio named one person of color – a female Harvard Business School professor – to his 15-member Mayor’s Life Sciences Advisory Council in 2017.

Yet scientists and researchers of color say the attention that the Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID-19 pandemic have drawn to racial inequality in the U.S. may prove to be a turning point – and that long-sought changes could pave the way for better health care for people of color.

“We were doing this work way before George Floyd’s murder. And many people of color were doing this work in the life sciences fields, in the midnight hour, on top of the work that they were already doing before,” said Emma K. T. Benn, a biostatistics professor and founding director of the Center for Scientific Diversity at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “And so my hope is that we now have a bigger platform where we're doing this work and people listen, people care, people want to support it. Institutions want to support it. And society believes that this work is important. The NIH believes that this work is important. We are still going to be pushing. We’re going to be pushing for more.”

Benn and like-minded colleagues face plenty of structural challenges. Some experts point to a lack of exposure to science education in elementary school in low-income neighborhoods as a barrier for many children of color. Choosing to pursue careers in science and technology often depends on early and frequent exposure in the classroom, said Yvonne Thevenot, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit STEM Kids NYC and a research assistant at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

“All over New York City neighborhoods, both in lower economic and upper echelons, there are pockets of schools and there are pockets within communities where there are STEM programs,” Thevenot said. “It doesn’t really put a dent in it, because there are just so many more people who aren’t being exposed.”

For students of color who do make it into graduate school or land a job in the life sciences, other obstacles arise. Women and minorities are less likely to complete postdoctoral research in the biomedical sciences than their male and white classmates. Black researchers remain significantly less likely to secure NIH research funding. That funding gap has been attributed to a greater focus on community health and health disparities by Black scientists, which has not been a high priority for federal investment. One 2020 study concluded that demographically underrepresented students tend to produce more innovative scientific research – but their work isn’t cited as often by peers and often doesn’t advance their careers.

People of color in the biomedical sciences say they contend with bias from their colleagues in the workplace as well. Last year, two Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai professors surveyed their peers on instances of racial bias. “Blacks have lower IQs than whites,” one scientist reported being told. “You’re not really Black because you are good,” another was told. “We used to sell your people,” another colleague noted, unprompted.

Boosting diversity in the life sciences is about more than diversity, these scientists say. It’s about improving the research and achieving better outcomes. Some diseases that disproportionately impact racial minorities garner less attention. The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need to devote more study into societal and environmental effects on health. There’s also evidence that more diverse research teams produce better results.

“If we have a scientific population that represents a singularity of thought and experience, we will never be able to address the multiplicity of scientific problems that we face,” said Dr. Uraina Clark, one of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai researchers who documented examples of racial bias in her field.

There are signs these arguments are gaining traction. In March, NIH Director Francis Collins issued an apology to those “individuals in the biomedical research enterprise who have endured disadvantages due to structural racism.” In June, the NIH announced a plan to close the racial gap in research grants and put renewed focus on health disparities. The Biden administration is targeting racial inequality too, with major funding proposals for everything from Black maternal health to universal preschool to the country’s historically Black colleges and universities. 

According to Benn, the relatively few individuals of color in the life sciences have been tasked with carrying out changes. “We’re being tasked to fix the problems, and the problems are bigger than us,” she said. “I’m optimistic that we will make progress. But I do think it requires more: more resources, more people, bigger platforms. It requires more – and it has to be sustained.”