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(Meaningfully) Improving Your Diversity Plan in 2024

I recently read a set of reviews for a proposal that scored well on the scientific sections, but very low on the diversity plan, and was not funded. This got me thinking about how to make these sections more robust. Increasingly, diversity plans are either directly or indirectly important to success of proposals. Some grants are specifically geared toward increasing diversity in STEM, but here I want to discuss more standard applications that include a required diversity plan and link some resources that might be helpful in creating a plan that is not just, well… lip service. At NSF, for example, the Broadening Participation section is part of the merit score and the NIH BRAIN Initiative, and many other NOFOs, require that applications include a Plan for Enhancing Diverse Perspectives.

I have many clients who are foreign nationals who do research and teach in American universities, and sorting through all the programs that support diversity in academia in the USA can get overwhelming if you are newer to this system—or for anyone. The below information is meant to help strengthen your proposal, but everything I am suggesting will also actually serve the goal of increasing diversity in STEM fields. I am not suggesting anything cynical here or that you should “diversity-wash” your proposal. Rather, I am suggesting ways to meaningfully create better thought out, more actionable diversity plans.

The biggest weakness I notice in diversity plans is what I call “hand waving”–lots of ideas and discussion of how important it all is, but little emphasis on specifics of WHO, WHERE and WHAT. Unsurprisingly, this is because it is difficult for researchers at elite academic institutions to fulfill these requirements by drawing solely from their home institutions. As a result, at the last minute, they try to cobble together a plan of hypothetical activities and the whole thing sounds weak, because it is weak. I suggest four actions that can lead to concrete, actionable diversity plans, if you think ahead a bit and lay some groundwork.

1. Begin preparing partnerships with outside institutions that serve the populations you are seeking to include

This needs to happen months in advance, if not years, NOT four weeks before your grant is due. The more established these partnerships are, the better off your grant will be and the more successful and sustainable partnerships you can create. So step one is to reach out to several of the vast network of minority-serving institutions near where you do your work and find people and programs to collaborate with. The closer geographically the better, to cut down on travel costs for funders and make it so students from those institutions can easily participate in the research, attend conferences, etcetera.

Here is a list of all the Minority-serving Institutions in the USA as of 2022, compiled by the Office of Postsecondary Education. Depending on the nature of your research, you can also filter by minority category, such as Hispanic-serving or Pacific Islander-serving, Tribal Colleges, or other designations.

Importantly, you can also use income rather than ethnicity, by finding collaborators at institutions that have high proportions of Pell Grant recipients. US News helpfully lists them here, from most Pell recipients to least. Generally, higher % of Pell Grants means more first-generation students (often meaning more ethnic diversity as well) and fewer STEM-prepared students. So working with these institutions is a win in every direction.

2. Carefully review the guidelines for any required plans and make sure you have included ~75% of what they are asking for. For example, this “Key Examples” plan from the NIH has excellent suggestions for actions you can build into your proposal, as well as listing where you can do “Outreach to and recruitment of diverse trainees and investigators at regional and national scientific meetings e.g. SACNAS, AISES, ABRCMS, AIChE, IEEE, ACM, etc.” You don’t have to hit every single item on the list, but if you only have done a couple of the items on it, your plan is not going to score well. 70-80% seems to me like a reasonable target.

3. Make sure you are partnering with the programs available at your institution to recruit first-generation and underrepresented minorities into your research program and/or your lab generally. These resources can be hard to find. It took me a few tries on Princeton’s website, for example, to find this page, called Access and Success at Princeton, which lists programs on and off campus to support students, some in STEM. If you are stating in your proposal that your research will mentor students, can you bolster that claim by partnering with a STEM mentoring program on your campus or nearby? At my former university, I was a McNair mentor, a program to connect students with on-campus faculty mentors that comes with a small amount of funding through the Trio Program. If your University does not have a Trio-type program, there are resources on that page to help “encourage the replication or adaptation of successful practices of TRIO projects at institutions and agencies that do not have TRIO grants.” Or, perhaps, your institution has other mentoring programs you can piggy back off of, rather than trying to invent a whole mentoring program just for your research activities. In other words, leverage as much as you can of the resources your institution already has!

4. Make sure you are supporting your graduate students, even ones about to enter your lab, to submit Diversity Supplements, e.g., T32s, which generally have some of the best funding lines. There are a few private ones as well, such as this post-doc support for underrepresented minorities from Burroughs Wellcome Fund. I wrote a post on this a few years ago. Reach out to applicants to your lab and work with them before they start to get that funding lined up.

As always, I am here to help. Happy New Year (of the Dragon)! And, if you haven’t already, let me know how your submissions fared.

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