FOOTNOTES January 2000
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EXECUTIVE OFFICER'S COLUMN

Training Opportunities for Minorities: Sociology Can Heed the Call

The Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is planning to launch an innovative web page to expand training opportunities for persons of color and to encourage NIH grantees to provide mentoring and training for minority students and junior faculty. This OBSSR initiative seeks to feature training opportunities and devise a "matching" system to expand the presence of minority investigators with expertise in social and behavioral factors.

This initiative is not just for sociologists who currently are being funded through an NIH institute or center or have health-related sociological interests. This is especially about students, about junior faculty, and about attracting and training the next generation of sociologists to our field. In this effort, I encourage all sociologists in colleges and universities to take part. Through the vehicle of this "Open Window," I hope to spread the word about NIH supplements for minority training and about OBSSR plans and to capture the interests of individual sociologists and sociology departments.

While I appreciate that calls for help are plentiful this time of year, the OBSSR "match" program has the capacity for high payoff relative to the investment. As I talk with individual sociologists about the importance of training a diverse talent pool, invariably someone will ask what she or he can do to have a larger impact other than through teaching or working with her or his own minority students. I am admittedly preoccupied by these opportunities. Two of our most important priorities in the Executive Office are the MOST Program (Minority Opportunities through School Transformation) and the MFP (Minority Fellowship Program). Just this past fall as Carla Howery (ASA Director of Academic and Professional Affairs) and I undertook MOST site visits to sociology departments throughout the country, we could see how new intentional steps (e.g., a department holding meetings with students to work on navigating the process of applying to graduate school) are making a real difference for the next generation of students.

Enter OBSSR

Intentional steps are at the heart of this OBSSR initiative. The best part about this "matching" program is that it will be broad in its reach and low in its trans-action costs. OBSSR is devising this web-based system because research supplements for NIH-funded projects to train and mentor minority students or junior faculty have been under-utilized. While obtaining a supplement is reasonably swift and straightforward (eight-week week turn-around; no formal application; better than 80 percent success rate), the number of such requests has leveled off in recent years and the number in the social and behavioral sciences is far off the mark from where it should be.

In inventing this web page, OBSSR hopes to expand the use of NIH supplements and to ensure a concentration of researchers who will address behavioral and social factors important to the public's health. The site will be a link between minority students or junior faculty and the research training opportunities available through the NIH Research Supplements for Underrepresented Minorities Program. It will also provide information on NIH research training opportunities in the behavioral and social sciences.

The Application Process

A research supplement can attach to any NIH award. The support can last a summer or longer. The plan is for OBSSR to regularly update the availability of NIH-funded projects on the web page. Supplemental funds are provided to the principal investigator for the applicant's salary, tuition, fees, supplies, and travel.

This OBSSR web page will be a self-search system. Applicants will enter information to help them find a research training opportunity that is right for them. Principal investigators with current NIH grants will also use this web site to express their interest in training minority students and junior faculty. Applicants will be able to select principal investigators with whom to work, and they can submit applications through electronic or regular mail. Investigators will notify applicants of their interest in pursuing the request for a research supplement. Assuming a potential match, the determination of whether there is a good mutual fit can occur based on a telephone interview or, if resources permit, a face-to-face visit. If the fit is there, the principal investigator will then submit a request for a research supplement to NIH.

A Sociological Opportunity

A substantial pool of resources is available to supplement NIH grants. In 1998, NIH spent over $45 million on supplements so there is considerable opportunity for sociologists to avail ourselves and our next generation of these training funds. Once the OBSSR web page is launched, sociologists being supported by the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development, Mental Health, Aging, Drug Abuse, Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, among others, can make known their interest and willingness to provide training through supplements. The full spectrum of sociological research related to health is eligible (e.g., household structure in relation to children's wellbeing, social factors in mortality, at-risk youth, violence and traumatic stress, aging processes and the place of older people in society, sociocultural determinants of drinking or drug dependence, disparities in health care delivery).

Heeding the Call

There are a number of ways for sociologists to become involved. NIH grantees can elect to list on the forthcoming OBSSR web page and indicate their willingness to provide a research-based training experience for a minority student or junior faculty member. Department chairs can encourage NIH grantees to do so as part of a department's commitment to excellence and inclusiveness in training. And, finally, all sociology faculty irrespective of their specialty areas and interests can encourage students of color to apply. The first steps are to make students aware of the OBSSR "match" program as soon as it is officially released (expected within a month), review their choices, and help them to apply. In other words, we can mentor our students through the process and, by so doing, further expand the pipeline of students of color in our field.

As we return after the holidays to our students and to our research agendas for 2000 and beyond, let us urge sociology students and NIH sociology grantees to take advantage of this accessible and sizable training support. We know from MFP and MOST that quality training and mentoring can matter. Through NIH supplements, we can broaden our base of action.

- Felice J. Levine