July 14, 2020

NINDS Strategies for Enhancing the Diversity of Neuroscience Researchers [Article]

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has a number of initiatives spanning training, education, and funding to promote diversity within the neuroscience workforce. These initiatives are coordinated (appropriately enough) through the Office of Programs to Enhance Neuroscience Workforce Diversity (OPEN) and often span other NIH institutes. In an article recently published in Neuron [1] Dr. Michelle Jones-London, Chief of OPEN, highlights NINDS programs and funding opportunities that promote diversity in the workforce. Beyond describing funding initiatives, Dr. Jones-London also outlines steps that individuals and institutions can take to promote change and equity in neuroscience. 

To combat systemic inertia related to issues of diversity, inclusion, and equity, she introduces the “Immunity to Change” framework [2]. This framework calls upon individuals and organizations to undertake four steps to promote real change:

(1) Commit to change by setting goals and identifying actions to achieve those goals; (2) Evaluate our behavior to identify how we are supporting (or not supporting) our commitment to change; (3) Identify and confront our own “hidden competing commitments” that are obstructing progress; and (4) Identify and challenge the assumptions and beliefs that underlie our competing commitments.

As individuals, our hidden competing commitments could include, for example, being committed to not “rocking the boat” with colleagues or mentors; here the underlying assumption is that our colleagues don’t want to engage in discussions on this topic and that our bringing it up would upset them. We might also be committed to just “focusing on our science” (rather than engaging in anti-racism activism) so that we’re not perceived by our advisors/colleagues as being uncommitted; here we’re assuming that our advisors/colleagues perceive diversity & inclusion-related efforts as a waste of time and believe that time spent on non-research endeavors is an indication that someone is not “sufficiently committed” to research. Beyond individuals, a graduate program may hold the hidden competing commitment to admitting “the best students,” and use that as the reason for why the student body isn’t diverse. The underlying false assumptions here are that “top-notch” URM PhD applicants just don’t exist, and that efforts to intentionally diversify the program necessitate a “lowering of standards.”

Action items for our community

PIs: Apply for Research Supplements to Promote Diversity to fund summer students, postbaccs, postdocs, etc. Anyone with an NIH research award can apply, and these supplements undergo administrative review only. Contact John Assad (john_assad@hms.harvard.edu)  or Tari Tan (taralyn_tan@hms.harvard.edu) if you are interested in learning more about efforts to encourage use of this funding mechanism by Neuro labs.

Grad students and Postdocs: Consider applying to the Mentored Career Development Awards (K awards) (postdocs) and the NIH Blueprint D-SPAN F99/K00 Awards (senior graduate students). Listen to the NINDS podcast, “Building up the Nerve” for an overview of the grant award process and tips for preparing your own applications.


  • Submit feedback on what the NIH can do to promote diversity in neuroscience through NOT-NS-19-097 (request for information (RFI) for NINDS Strategic Planning Process) and NOT-MH-20-051 (RFI: Advancing Scientific and Workforce Diversity in the BRAIN initiative - (deadline: July 15)
  • Explore some of the amazing resources from the three NINDS Diversity and Inclusion workshops from the past few years, including recorded talks, meeting summaries, and more

Key Terminology

Hidden Competing Commitment: Something to which an individual or group is committed that serves to hinder change or action. Rests upon underlying assumptions that are false and/or which need to be challenged for change to occur.


[1] Jones-London, NINDS Strategies for Enhancing the Diversity of Neuroscience Researchers, Neuron (2020), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2020.06.033 

[2] Kegan R. & Lahey L. Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock Potential in Yourself and Your Organization. Harvard Business Press, 2009