NHGRI Emphasizes the Need to Champion a Diverse Genomics Workforce

Vence Bonham, J.D.
Vence Bonham, J.D.

In October, National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) published its strategic vision for the next decade of human genomics. NHGRI’s vision identifies guiding principles and values for human genomics, including the imperative to champion a diverse genomics workforce.

Vence Bonham, J.D., senior advisor on genomics and health disparities to the NHGRI director, discusses why workforce diversity in genomics has become a critically urgent necessity for innovation and scientific progress. Mr. Bonham is also an associate investigator in the NHGRI Social and Behavioral Research Branch and head of the Health Disparities Unit.

ASHG: Why does the need for a diverse genomics workforce rise to the level of prominence that it does in the new NHGRI strategic vision?

Mr. Bonham: As we say in our 2020 strategic vision: “The promise of genomics cannot be fully achieved without attracting, developing, and retaining a diverse workforce, which includes individuals from groups that are currently underrepresented in the genomics enterprise.”

Since its creation, NHGRI has strived to provide responsible stewardship of the field of genomics. The 2020 strategic vision, which outlines many ambitious advances in technology development, biological insights and clinical applications (among others), will lead to more widespread integration of genomics into almost all areas of biomedical research. Achieving these advances depends upon attracting and retraining people with diverse perspectives and untapped talents.

While organizations such as ASHG and NHGRI have long recognized the need to include more diverse talent, efforts to do so have thus far largely failed for a number of reasons. Giving the discussion of increasing workforce diversity the prominence that we did in the strategic vision acknowledges that concerted efforts must be made in the field of genomics to intentionally include underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, disadvantaged populations, and individuals with disabilities as well as women in leadership.

ASHG: How do you hope to work with academic institutions to advance your goals? What steps should grantees explore to help you with these efforts?

Mr. Bonham: The NHGRI strategic vision is precisely what it says: a vision, not a roadmap. While NHGRI will help provide leadership, we look to partner with others to address the need for a more diverse workforce. As is outlined in the vision:

To attain a diverse genomics workforce, new strategies and programs to reduce impediments to career opportunities in genomics are required, as are creative approaches to promote workforce diversity, leadership in the field, and inclusion practices. Initiatives should not focus exclusively on early-stage recruitment; instead, they must also include incentives to recruit and retain a diverse workforce at all career stages as well as new approaches for cultivating the next generation of genomics practitioners.

To foster these new strategies and programs, NHGRI seeks partnerships with institutions across the genomics spectrum, including academic, non-profit, industry, and professional organizations. NHGRI seeks to build and catalyze a nationwide action to amplify solutions that address the challenges unique to the field of genomics. Currently, NHGRI leadership is working on an action-oriented agenda to outline the Institute’s own commitments in this area, and NHGRI hopes this will spark other organizations to make workforce diversity an even greater priority in the near-term. I encourage grantees to work with their colleagues to contribute their own solutions and to participate in strategies and programs as they emerge.

ASHG: Recruitment, retention and promotion are important facets in workforce diversity initiatives. For the research workforce, what are NHGRI’s strategic goals, and how could ASHG members help and learn from NHGRI’s work?

Mr. Bonham: To even set goals, we must understand the problem. It’s not as if the need for increased workforce diversity in genomics has only arisen in 2020. For decades, NIH and other scientific organizations have monitored workforce demographics throughout the scientific enterprise, gathering data to get a more accurate picture. We still need to listen more. Genomics is unique in its relative youth and foundational nature throughout the biomedical sciences, and so understanding the unique challenges of its workforce is both nascent and long overdue.

NHGRI will provide more information in early 2021 that focuses on setting goals and upcoming opportunities for collective actions, including ways in which ASHG members can become more involved. Stay tuned!

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