Funding a more equitable research enterprise

In June 2020, the Office of the Vice President for Research (VPR) released a letter of commitment to the University of Utah research community to enhance equity, diversity, and inclusivity (EDI) in research. Over the past year, the VPR Office has consulted with staff, faculty and students across campus to discuss how to make the research enterprise more just and accessible to current and prospective Utah residents of all backgrounds.

The VPR Office knows that good intentions aren’t enough. “It’s important for us to take real action against discrimination and racism within our own research community,” says Andy Weyrich, vice president for research. “We worked with researchers, students and staff across campus that come from diverse backgrounds and identities to implement new EDI programs that have a real impact on the U research community. This has truly been a One U effort.”

Here are some of the EDI resources that have been implemented.

Institutional funding support

Any external grant proposals that are specifically aimed at funding research on, or enhancing, EDI-related research projects are eligible for institutional support for the project. Upon award, this support provides a portion of a project’s direct costs rather than depending on full funding from the grant’s sponsor. Institutional support can provide resources, such as new equipment, that are difficult to fund within the constraints of grant proposals. Institutional support commitments can make a proposal more competitive, as the sponsor can support larger, more impactful programs. “Providing funding support can enhance the scope and impact of EDI research,” says Diane Pataki, associate vice president for research.

So far, the U has provided funds to support a $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation awarded to the REFUGES program that studies how refugee teenagers construct self-identities related to STEM. This year, the VPR Office has resources to support several other EDI–related research programs, and any extra funds are reinvested back into future EDI programs. For more information about applying for the program, visit the VPR research website.

Administrative supplements to recruit and retain diverse researchers

Administrative supplements are available to support the recruitment and retention of research personnel from groups that have been historically excluded from higher education institutions. Principal investigators who want to recruit researchers to work on an existing externally funded project can apply for administrative supplements to: 1) Offer higher financial incentives for the individual to join the U and 2) Better support someone at the U who risks leaving due to financial burden. Researchers can apply to support graduate students, post-doctoral researchers, research staff, or career-line faculty.

The U’s administrative supplement program generally follows NSF’s guidelines for the eligible persons, but also broadens the diversity requirements to include LGBTQIA+ eligibility. The U is one of the first to include members of the LGBTQIA+ community for research supplements and support.

Last year, U research recruited and retained more than 10 historically excluded persons to the U, most of whom were students. Additionally, the VPR helped pilot an initiative that provided supplementary training to historically excluded students seeking access to MD and Ph.D programs. Approximately $500,000 was distributed to support students’ salary and payments for career and professional development.

Researchers with current NIH or NIOSH/CDC funding should strongly consider applying to the Department of Health and Human Services Research Supplement Program to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research, which offers larger funding amounts to enhance the diversity of the research workforce.

Hired a grant development specialist

The VPR office has hired Dr. Mercedes Ward as the VPR’s first grant development specialist to support research strategic planning and grant development specifically in equity, diversity, and inclusion, effective July 1, 2021. Dr. Ward will play a pivotal role in nurturing alliances between and among faculty at the U, funding agencies, and communities to develop goals and implementation plans for the institutional EDI research portfolio. She will also identify EDI funding opportunities, facilitate EDI strategic funding activities, and review current EDI internal programs.

Implement new education and training

Education and training have become a key factor in addressing concerns about EDI in research. Along with the Office of Research Integrity and Compliance, the VPR Office has revised and developed new courses through the Office of Research Education to address EDI concerns in human subjects research. This also includes a Best Practice Network that will work directly with sexual and gender minority populations in the research context, as well as sessions from the Multi-Regional Clinical Trials Center about including diverse populations in research.

Demographics to enhance diversity in research participants

Within the Institutional Review Board, the VPR office will collect demographics to track the diversity of research participants for all studies conducted at the U which will serve as a baseline to assess how effective different community research outreach programs improve access to these novel research interventions.

In addition, the VPR office has created a public facing webpage called Study Locator that lists research studies that are currently recruiting participants. The recruitment content for these studies is written in plain language to address potential health literacy concerns in both English and Spanish.

“Justice is an equally important component for the protection and welfare of participants who volunteer to participate in research,” says Erin Rothwell, associate vice president for research integrity and compliance. “We need to ensure these opportunities are available to everyone.”

The VPR office is piloting new translation contractors to increase the number of studies to recruit non-English speaking participants. The state of Utah has over 120 different languages spoken regularly and the need for research translation is growing.

While many of these initiatives show promise for building an inclusive research environment, the VPR Office will continue its work for EDI in research.

“As proud as we are of our current efforts, there is still so much more to do, “said Weyrich. “We are committed to the hard work, and we’re very grateful to our research community for guiding us while we build an inclusive community for our current and future generations to come.”