Advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: A Conversation with NIH Leaders Marie A. Bernard, M.D and Vence Bonham Jr., J.D.

ASHG remains committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion in genetics and genomics research. It is both a scientific and community imperative. Recognizing the importance of engagement and collaboration to accelerate this essential work, ASHG is excited to feature two National Institutes of Health senior leaders who have taken on the charge of advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in their respective roles.

Marie A. Bernard, M.D and Vence Bonham Jr., J.D.
Marie A. Bernard, M.D and Vence Bonham Jr., J.D.

Marie A. Bernard, M.D. is the Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity, where she leads NIH’s effort to “promote diversity, inclusiveness, and equity throughout the biomedical research enterprise.” Vence Bonham, Jr., J.D. has been recently appointed as acting Deputy Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute. In this role, he oversees NHGRI-wide activities and leads programmatic efforts to “advance the Institute’s work related to diversity, inclusion, health equity, anti-racism and social justice.”

These change agents are building on their numerous years of experience aimed at breaking down barriers to diversity and fostering an environment of inclusive excellence. We spoke with Dr. Bernard and Mr. Bonham to learn more about their work.

ASHG: Please share what diversity, equity, and inclusion means to you and why they are important.

Dr. Bernard: Over many years of my career, I’ve championed diversity, equity, and inclusion. Not only are they important, but I also see them as taking advantage of the full spectrum of talent to optimize creativity and innovation. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are best achieved when we are unable to predict based on one’s gender, race and ethnicity, or other characteristics where a person may be in the research ecosystem.

Mr. Bonham: These words, like many, have multiple meanings and definitions based upon our varying experiences.  Every aspect of biomedical research requires highly talented scientists from diverse backgrounds—racial and ethnic, people with disabilities, women (particularly in leadership positions), LGBTQ populations, as well as a diversity of thought and expertise from various disciplines.  Research shows that diverse teams working together bring innovative ideas and distinct perspectives.  We need our scientific and trainee teams to reflect the United States – a diversity of backgrounds and life experiences working to address complex scientific problems to improve health for all Americans.

My research group has been talking and writing about these issues.  We envision diversity as an ethos or culture that confronts norms and practices that are inequitable.  The key point is that diversity is not the number of individuals with certain social identities but rather a process. It is not a one-time step, but a progression of steps that are intentionally built into the fabric of a lab, team, department, academic institution, or company over time.  For me, equity means everyone is provided the necessary resources and opportunities to succeed.  There is intentional fairness in opportunities.  Inclusion is complex because it sets up a power dynamic in that someone in a more dominating position is making decisions to include you. My research group challenges that we should always be aware that the power relationship in the process of inviting or welcoming an individual.  We should move to a point that everyone is part of the process of inclusion.

ASHG: What aspects of your leadership position excites you the most?

Dr. Bernard: I am delighted to be in this leadership position that is fully centered on diversity, equity, and inclusion. We are in a unique time – a tipping point – with all eyes focused on advancing this important work. I’m excited about the opportunity to focus on a life-long obsession – being sure to enlarge the stage and share with others the great opportunities in biomedicine.

Mr. Bonham: The potential for change.  I am excited about change and what those changes can lead to for both genomics and populations currently not represented in biomedical and genomics research.  The potential to guide important issues for the field of genomics excites me. I look forward to leading efforts to diversify the workforce and study participants, which ultimately will lead to new genomic knowledge, treatments and services that benefit all populations.  I also am looking forward to examining the use of the social constructs of race and ethnicity in genomics and looking for ways to move us beyond their reliance.  We are at a time when we must confront the challenging legacy of the field of genetics and achieve the promise that genomics offers for all.  I hope that my role as an administrator, researcher, and mentor can help to catalyze this exciting new knowledge in human genomics and change the face of the field.

ASHG: In your opinion, what are the grand challenges that the biomedical or genetics/genomics field faces to create a climate and culture of diversity, equity and inclusion?

Dr. Bernard: A grand challenge is managing change, which is always scary, particularly to those who may think they are losing something. We should think of it instead as enlarging our scope – allowing us to see and solve scientific problems from new and exciting perspectives.

Mr. Bonham: The number one challenge in my opinion is people’s willingness to provide opportunities for people who are different than themselves.  As I mentioned earlier, research shows that diverse teams working together bring innovative ideas and distinct perspectives.  But, people oftentimes want to work with people who think like them and come from the same background (racial, ethnic, educational level, age, gender, etc.).  Behaviors need to change in order to truly create a culture of diversity and inclusivity that is equitable for all contributors in the field.

ASHG: Under your leadership, what steps are being taken to tackle the persistent lack of diversity in the scientific workforce? (or NHGRI specific efforts)?

Dr. Bernard: There are several efforts and initiatives underway at the NIH to address workforce diversity, and I’ll highlight a few which include: expanding the use of diversity supplements, seeking ways to enhance cultures of inclusive excellence, increasing outreach to Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other minority serving institutions, and fostering diverse cohorts of faculty recruitment – with a special workshop anticipated in early December of 2021.

Mr. Bonham: NHGRI is tackling the lack of diversity in the genomic workforce.  NHGRI’s leadership has raised diversifying the genomics workforce to a very high priority level.  This past January, our Institute released its Action Agenda for Building a Diverse Genomics Workforce followed by a commentary written by myself and NHGRI’s Director, Dr. Eric Green in ASHG’s American Journal of Human Genetics.  NHGRI has outlined an ambitious set of goals, objectives, and implementation strategies to enhance the diversity of the genomics workforce by 2030.

ASHG: What are some initiatives underway that our members should be aware of or have the opportunity to become engaged?

Mr. Bonham: Yes, there are several recent funding opportunity announcements  and a new postdoctoral fellowship program supported by NHGRI that members should be aware of:

 ASHG: NIH is pursuing a data-driven approach to understanding diversity drivers and outcomes. Are there any insights or lessons learned from conducting these evidence-building efforts?

Dr. Bernard: NIH COVID 19 surveys demonstrate that we should be quite concerned about the future for early career women and individuals from underrepresented groups. Using a data-driven approach to assess the impact of the pandemic on the research community is an example of how we’ve recently gained insight on the heightening of existing challenges faced by a diverse workforce. Key challenges noted from the survey findings included mental and physical health as well as caregiving, particularly for young children.

ASHG: The COVID-19 pandemic, combined with growing support for racial justice, has brought the issue of inequity to the fore. Do you think we’re in a transformative moment within the scientific community to drive change and if so – how will it happen?

Mr. Bonham: Absolutely. The global pandemic and the racial reckoning in the United States has exposed why this is the moment where we must all work for the change – for the future of our science and professions.   The past year has shined a bright light on the effects of structural racism in our country and how we must come together to drive change in the scientific community to become a more equitable and healthy society.

Dr. Bernard: Absolutely, I believe we are in a transformative moment – and thus we now have the NIH UNITE initiative. Through UNITE, we are systematically reviewing all policies and procedures, ensuring a strong commitment to make structural changes, and garnering significant momentum. For more information about our work, people should visit:

Thank you, Mr. Bonham and Dr. Bernard for giving of your time and sharing your perspectives.

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