Next June will mark the end of an era for APA's Minority Fellowship Program. That's when its Diversity Program in Neuroscience (DPN) will close its doors after 23 years of supporting ethnic-minority students' pursuit of neuroscience research careers. The reason? The National Institute of Mental Health has stopped funding the program.
In January, NIMH announced that it would cancel the diversity-focused training programs it funds for APA and other associations. Instead, it plans to work to improve diversity in all of its training programs and shift the management of its T32 programs—the mechanism that funds APA's program—from associations to universities.
"While this action will alter the specific programs that NIMH supports, we believe that implementing the recommendations outlined above will, in aggregate, help the NIMH to achieve its goal of training a diverse work force with the skill sets needed to conduct innovative research that will improve the lives of those affected by mental illness and, ultimately, to develop cures for mental illness," wrote NIMH project officer Nancy Desmond, PhD, in the e-mail announcing the decision.
That decision is a big mistake, say members of DPN's training advisory committee. While APA's own fellows have been success stories, they say, the field of neuroscience as a whole still has a long way to go.
"The most disturbing aspect of this decision is that the proportion of underrepresented graduates in the life sciences who earn doctorates has not increased for the last 10 years," the advisory committee members said in a joint statement to the Monitor. "Worse, the number earning doctorates in the neurosciences may actually be decreasing."
A record of success
Established in 1988, the DPN offers financial support, mentoring and enrichment activities to pre- and postdoctoral students interested in neuroscience careers. To date, the program has funded 289 neuroscience fellows.
Those fellows have done exactly what APA hoped they would do, says DPN director Joe L. Martinez, PhD, the Ewing Halsell Distinguished Chair of Biology at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Martinez and several colleagues recently reviewed more than two decades' worth of data on DPN's alumni.
For one thing, says Martinez, "we have a superior completion rate than many graduate programs." Almost 90 percent of DPN participants have received doctoral degrees or are still in training, he says, adding that participants' average time to degree is an impressive six years.
Once participants graduate, says Martinez, their successes continue. "The graduates are progressing quite normally through assistant, associate and full professor. They are publishing and getting grants. And they are staying in research," he says. "We are contributing positively to the scientific work force."
NIMH based its decision on recommendations from its National Advisory Mental Health Council Workgroup on Research Training.
But, as the DPN Training Advisory Committee points out, that workgroup didn't assess fellowship programs on a case-by-case basis. Nor did it examine long-term outcomes data. Instead, it based its findings on data collected in a single year. In addition, the definition of success was extremely narrow: The only outcome it assessed was the number of past trainees who had won NIH or NIMH R01 grants.
While Martinez doesn't know the exact number of training slots eliminated by the move, he estimates that it's more than 100 slots per year. And that will have a big impact on getting underrepresented minorities into neuroscience, he says.
NIMH's action is especially frustrating given its timing, add the DPN committee members. The National Institutes of Health recently received $10 billion in stimulus money to create jobs, they point out, and these fellowships are jobs that contribute to the economy. "Additionally, one of the areas to be addressed in the stimulus package is health disparities," the members say. "Increasing the diversity of the scientific work force and those conducting research with interests in health disparities addresses this goal."
When combined with the loss of its NIMH-funded Mental Health Research grant in 2006, the Minority Fellowship Program has lost more than two-thirds of its income and 60 training slots for ethnic-minority researchers, says program director Andrew Austin-Dailey.
That leaves about 30 training slots for pre- and postdoctoral trainees under the Minority Fellowship Program's Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Fellowship initiative, which is funded by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
In July, APA will appoint one last round of neuroscience fellows. They will receive just one year of support rather than the typical two years.
"We've been doing advocacy around this since at least 2005, when we first started hearing rumors about it," says Austin-Dailey. "When an occasion arises, we still bring up the issue."
But now the Minority Fellowship Program is moving on and exploring new options for neuroscience training and development. One idea is to raise funds for an endowment through the American Psychological Foundation.
"With a few million dollars, you could have a viable program that would not replace but at least would be in existence to provide the same kind of networking, mentoring and support that the old APA neuroscience program did," says Martinez.
Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.