Racial and ethnic minorities constitute a tiny fraction of the NIH-funded principal investigators for whom race or ethnicity is identified,2
even though minority groups make up 25% of the U.S. population.21
The situation for American Indian and Alaska Native researchers is arguably the bleakest. In 1999, the NIH funded 35,000 grants, 9 of which were awarded to Native researchers; by 2006, 24 grants had been awarded to 18 Native researchers.22
These troublesome figures are congruent with an Association of American Medical Colleges survey indicating that only 11 (0.1%) of all medical school faculty are Native, and these are predominantly at the assistant professor level or lower.23
The underrepresentation of minority scientists among NIH-funded researchers has been attributed to their small numbers overall,23
and is further exacerbated by the even smaller number of minority scientists who apply for NIH funding and their low rates of success.24
Minority faculty tend to have more clinical, counseling, and administrative duties; are not typically engaged in research; and perceive their teaching and advising responsibilities as major obstacles to career progress.25-27
Also, minority physicians often choose primary care specialties and practice in underserved areas.28
For minority faculty who are committed to addressing the service needs of minority students, housestaff, and their communities, the need to “publish or perish” may cause personal and professional conflicts.29
In a study of barriers to NIH funding, minority investigators indicated that inadequate mentoring; lack of institutional support; and social, cultural, and environmental factors all posed obstacles to success.2
The Native Investigator Development Program addresses these concerns by creating a supportive web of invested mentors and peers who are committed to reducing health disparities in Native communities.
Given the difficulty of retaining minorities in academia, the linkages demonstrated by the present analyses document the importance of involving our program “graduates” in mentoring activities, establishing support systems for trainees to decrease isolation, and educating and advising trainees about career development issues, such as funding, promotion, and institutional and sponsor policies. In this regard, strategies to retain minorities in academia often focus on decreasing their isolation by, for instance, creating a critical mass of minority faculty or offering diversity courses and research opportunities.30
Not surprisingly, minority faculty are less satisfied with their careers and more often consider leaving academia than their white peers.31
Minorities in academia also hold lower ranks, move more slowly into senior positions, receive fewer NIH grants, 32
and leave academia more frequently than their white colleagues.33
The reasons for this situation are complex, but they reflect discrimination, a lack of knowledge about tenure and promotion, and a lack of mentors or role models.34
The existing literature underscores the diverse needs of minority junior faculty, needs that our program addresses by training, informing, and linking Native trainees with committed, research-oriented faculty and role models. As this report demonstrates, SNA provides a tool to graphically depict the relationships formed as a result of the Native Investigator Development Program.
Traditional evaluative approaches rely on demonstrations of authorship17
and external grant support, but fail to acknowledge the meaning, value, and consequences of relationships among mentors, mentees, and peers. SNA provides a natural approach for evaluating collaborative and mentorship relations like those in our program through its ability to map and measure complex relationships and flows.35-37
SNA delineates interactions between investigators in the form of geometric arrays, called “sociomatrices,” which differ from conventional data used in program evaluation.14
Standard multi-level analyses treat investigators as independent entities, perhaps organized within hierarchical structures, with data arrayed in matrices such that rows are individual investigators and columns are attributes (e.g., peer-reviewed publications) measured on investigators. A group of trainees might be described by cohort-level variables, such as total funding, while individual trainees might be characterized by the number of grants awarded to each person. SNA, in contrast, treats investigators as interdependent entities, with data on their interrelationships arrayed in a matrix such that the list of investigators and their attributes (i.e., grants and publications) are represented in the cells of the matrix by a value indicating the presence or absence of a relationship between them.
Research networks that promote collaboration among underrepresented minorities, especially those resulting from intensive mentorship programs, can be fruitfully evaluated by SNA. This technique has helped us to better understand the processes through which our program’s outcomes are achieved. In this regard, improving our program depends crucially on knowing how our networks are bounded, which faculty are the most central and influential members, which members provide linkages across networks, and which characteristics and roles distinguish them. SNA also documents the increasing role of past trainees in WINR as they take on more mentorship responsibilities and create their own collaborative webs. Finally, collecting rich qualitative and quantitative data, and then building on the insights gleaned from SNA, can help define and eventually model the observed relationships. Such models represent testable entities that, over time, can be used to assess any changes in the funding and publication landscape that result from the Native Investigator Development Program. SNA also holds promise for identifying new collaborations based on common research interests,38
as exemplified by our program.
This study has several noteworthy limitations. First, in the SNA of both manuscripts and grants, 3 highly connected people (AY, AL, AQ) account for much of the richness of the WINR network. Their high level of connectedness and influence over network flow reflect both the length of time they have spent in the program and their critical and central roles (not stated here for reasons of confidentiality). Second, we relied on conventional indicators of success, namely publications and grants, and did not consider other, likely crucial, community indicators of program success, such as outcomes of research or changes in clinical practices or policy. Third, although SNA is in some sense quantitative, its metrics cannot be substituted for a careful review of the visual representations and the formation of evaluative judgments on how best to interpret them. Finally, we studied only individuals in the WINR network, so we cannot draw conclusions about the potential role of colleagues outside the program in contributing to the manuscripts and grants we evaluated.
The challenges and promises of research in academic environments are numerous. Most training programs neither adequately address the unique needs of minority investigators nor pave the way for their success. To alleviate racial and ethnic health disparities, we need to implement innovative scientific approaches, rigorously train and involve minority researchers, and develop new strategies that expand on existing concepts of evaluating career training programs. The effort described here represents a systematic method of documenting the far-reaching influence of one successful training program for American Indian and Alaska Native researchers. Future research is needed to consider whether SNA can be extended to reflect tribal and community partnerships and whether including other personal and professional outcomes will enrich program evaluation. Additional studies are also recommended on the best use of SNA-based evaluation to longitudinally track the progress of the Native Investigator Development Program.15