The genomic revolution at the end of the 1990s brought urgency to the consideration of the current state of research training. The rapid development of new approaches to diseases, together with the burgeoning overload of raw data, heightens the need to ensure that research training programs not only keep pace with scientific progress, but that they also fully address future workforce needs. New strategies and competencies are required by twenty-first century investigators to fully exploit the changing environment, leading inevitably to the conclusion that major changes in recruiting, educating and training the future scientific workforce will be necessary.
Many believe that key types of research will suffer if changes are not made in the way researchers are trained. Any attempt to address the training issue must first ensure that the composition of the community of trainees truly reflects the cultural and ethnic diversity of the nation. In order to increase the number of researchers, effective strategies must include racial minority groups who have historically been underrepresented in the research arena but who will experience significant population increases over the next fifty years and who will form a new majority of Americans. These underrepresented groups have historically been disadvantaged and have experienced significant differences in disease burdens when compared to the European-American population. Differences in health status across racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. have been described for a wide array of diseases, conditions, and outcomes. This health disparities picture, generally acknowledged as the basis for the country’s low health status ranking among the industrial nations, prompted President Clinton in 1998 to launch the Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities Initiative, which set a national goal of eliminating these disparities by 2010. Reducing health disparities will require multiple fresh approaches, and these approaches must center on increased inclusion of underrepresented minorities in the research arena.
While it is clear that a researcher need not come from a minority or disadvantaged background to contribute to the understanding and remediation of health disparities, it is reasonable to expect that such individuals as a group would possess greater motivation and persistence, as well as familiarity and insight into these problems. Minority researchers tend to investigate diseases that particularly impact minority populations; are better equipped to advocate for additional resources in areas that disproportionately effect minority populations; tend to include minority populations in clinical trials; and tend to improve recruitment and retention rates in population-based studies. A cadre of minority researchers will also encourage more minority students to pursue careers in the research arena because they will have role models and potential mentors with whom they can identify. There is thus an urgent national need to produce more minority researchers, who as investigators can advance public health through scientific discovery, and who as minorities can deliver the benefits of this research to an increasingly diverse U.S. population.
It will be difficult, however, to increase the inclusion of underrepresented minorities in the research arena because current training models, utilized by most minority programs, fail to generate significant numbers of minority researchers. Historically, the discovery arena – academia, government and the pharmaceutical industry – has employed different short-term training models to increase the number of underrepresented minority researchers. These short-term models have not yielded significant numbers of minorities into post-baccalaureate educational tracks, resulting in very little bang for the buck. This failure to produce a significant cadre of underrepresented minority researchers is a direct result of the flaws in the traditional training models – shotgun participant selection process, duration of treatment, late start of treatment, etc.