A $1.5 billion pledge to diversify the sciences

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the nation’s largest private funder of biomedical research, recently announced a $1.5 billion effort to strengthen the sciences by investing in early-career academic scientists who demonstrate a commitment to diversity and inclusion.

HHMI named the initiative after the president of University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), Freeman A. Hrabowski III, under whose leadership UMBC became the nation’s leading producer of Black scientists and engineers. The Freeman Hrabowski Scholars Program will hire 30 new scholars every other year through the next decade, sponsoring up to 150 early-career faculty for up to 10 years each. Scholars who remain in the program for the full 10 years could receive up to $8.6 million in funding, according to HHMI.

Scholars will become HHMI employees but will maintain their appointments and labs at their home institutions. HHMI hopes that the infusion of resources will not only advance Scholars’ research but also “their capacity to create an equitable and inclusive lab climate that values diversity,” benefitting future waves of scientists, as well.

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Continuing a legacy

UMBC President Hrabowski, set to retire in July, is known for focusing on recruitment and retention of students from backgrounds underrepresented in the scientific workforce, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. UMBC’s Meyerhoff Scholars Program, founded by Hrabowski in 1988, has become a national model for supporting college students who go on to pursue graduate and doctoral degrees in STEM fields and join the STEM workforce, The Washington Post reports. Meyerhoff alumni include former U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams and Kizzmekia Corbett, PhD, an immunologist who led the team that developed the coronavirus vaccine at the National Institutes of Health.

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The Freeman Hrabowski Scholars Program seeks to extend Hrabowski’s contribution to the sciences by reducing barriers that have led to the underrepresentation of scientists of color. Fewer than 2% of scientists at national agencies are Black, says Hrabowski, and according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 12.1% of biological scientists were Black in 2012, the Baltimore Sun reports.

To help scientists “build a happy and diverse lab where minoritized scientists will thrive and persist,” the financial support provided to Freeman Hrabowski Scholars will cover their salaries, research budgets, and laboratory fees, Leslie B. Vosshall, HHMI’s vice president and chief scientific officer, explains in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Vosshall also notes that the program protects scientists of color from being exploited by “the minority tax”: the diversity work underrepresented students are asked to provide for free. Instead, Freeman Hrabowski Scholars would be expected to spend 80% of their time on research and building their lab work.

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The program comes at a time when public mistrust in science and medicine has grown, according to The Washington Post. For Hrabowski, “the future of humankind” and its faith in science depends on increasing diversity in these fields. “We need the public to trust science and medicine, and they will only trust us if we can see more people from more backgrounds as experts.”

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