Reckoning with Diversity and Equity Problems in U.S. Research and Clinical Trials

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Long simmering racial tensions across the U.S. have bubbled to the surface again. This is especially true on the heels of the recent police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. The fallout resulted in protesters taking to the streets around the nation to call for an end to racism and declaring “Black lives matter.”

While demonstrators rally in the streets, researchers in some of the most prestigious institutions in the U.S. are rallying to ensure that the scientific enterprise—from individual labs all the way up to the drug development process and clinical trials—are more racially diverse and equitable. The importance of these goals cannot be overstated. Underrepresentation among Blacks and Hispanics in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields is well-documented, with these groups making up just 9% and 7% of the STEM workforce, respectively. And the omission of Black and Latino people doesn’t end in workplace settings.

Far too often, Black and Latino people are left out of clinical trials—which help researchers develop disease treatments—for diseases that disproportionately affect their communities. Being left out of trials could mean less-effective treatments for those most at risk.

A serious effort to recognize and tackle these issues head-on is necessary to bring about meaningful change. Equity starts with teaching existing and budding researchers the importance of diversity at every stage of science—from the classroom to clinical trial—to ensure Black and Latino people benefit from new disease treatments and vaccines, including those under development for COVID-19.

“If we ask our students to think in new ways to learn physiology, then we, as faculty, should be willing to think in new ways to address racism and equity in science and education,” wrote Lisa Carney Anderson, PhD, a research professor at the University of Minnesota. In her recent post on the American Physiological Society’s Physiology Educator Community of Practice blog, Anderson offered suggestions on how educators can change their mindset and approach to cultivate a classroom culture where students feel welcome and primed to succeed.

The classroom is just the beginning. Researchers are also specifically focusing on having better representation in current clinical trials to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, which affects Black and Latino people at disproportionately higher rates.

In Stat News, researchers Kathryn Stephenson, MD, MPH, and Bisola Ojikutu, MD, laid out a four-pronged approach to achieving diversity and equity among clinical trial participants. The steps are:

  1. acknowledging the problem of participant enrollment,
  2. appropriate allocation of funds to support diversity efforts,
  3. addressing mistrust of research in communities of color, and
  4. ensuring fair distribution of any COVID-19 vaccine once developed.

One of the many things that recent uprisings have exposed is the pervasive nature of racism across every spectrum of American life. Only through consistent and constant efforts to be more inclusive and equitable can we begin to have better representation and access for Black and Latino people in all parts of the research enterprise—from classroom to cures.

Mario Boone

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