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The Executive Officer’s Column

Minority Research Training Milestones

With outstanding peer reviews, the ASA application to continue our Minority Fellowship Program (MFP) has been funded for three additional years at $1.37-million by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Receipt of this grant extends the 31-year history of NIMH support of minority fellows, and establishes NIDA as a new supporter of the ASA training efforts. It is a notable endorsement of this program’s long, successful record.

A Proud History

Many sociologists of color have been supported during their doctoral training by the MFP, one of the very few training programs of its size run by a professional association. The MFP was established in 1974 under a National Institutes of Health (NIH) research-training grant (T-32) mechanism through the Division of Mental Disorders, Behavioral Research, and AIDS (DMDBA) within NIMH. When ASA submitted our five-year competitive renewal application to NIMH and NIDA in 2004, federal research agencies were on the threshold of a government-wide self-examination of how to proceed with fulfilling congressional mandates to ensure more minorities are trained in essential mental health and drug abuse research fields and how to balance those national needs within a less-than-nurturing political climate. These factors make the award to ASA all the more important while also contributing to a deep concern over the future of federal support for diversity-focused research training.

A Collaborative Effort

The MFP is a truly collaborative effort by the sociological community. ASA Council has provided continuing support for a MFP scholar each year. The ASA program receives generous support from the broader sociological community. Individual ASA members and former-MFP scholars provide individual donations each year. In addition, Alpha Kappa Delta, the sociology honors society, supports MFP scholars, as does Sociologists for Women in Society, Association of Black Sociologists, Midwest Sociological Society, Southwestern Sociological Association, and individual academic departments of sociology. This breadth and depth of support reflects the essential commitment of sociology as a profession to inclusiveness and excellence in the development of our scholars and our scholarship.

A Challenging Future

The NIMH award will be reviewed in three years. Pending ongoing merit determinations of the program’s performance and trainee quality as well as funding availability, NIH will continue to support the 17 trainee slots for at least two additional years. However, challenges arising from federal policy changes, budget constraints, and internal questions in NIH about the size and purposes of its training programs (especially in the social and behavioral sciences) will provide a stiff current against which renewal applications will swim.

NIMH invests 12 percent of its budget in training, although the NIH overall average is 8 percent. Believing this difference to be undesirable, NIMH Director Thomas Insel is currently seeking a different balance between the “pipeline” and the “pay-line,” including reducing NIMH training efforts to correspond more closely with the NIH overall average. Insel sees this shift as necessary to leverage unprecedented scientific opportunities to define the pathophysiology of mental disorders, develop new interventions, and support new investigators at the cutting edge of basic science discoveries and translation into interventions. That is, research that will transform prevention of and recovery from mental disorders. Advocates of the essential role of the behavioral and social sciences in such scientific efforts, especially David Abrams, Director of the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Science Research, are educating about and advocating for this perspective within NIH. However, the future is uncertain. It is unclear where social science-related training programs and research will fit into the future of NIH and especially NIMH. For the moment, the number of NIMH training slots overall have been cut.

A Time of Transition

Recently released pilot data on the relative success of scientists who have received training grants has spurred the NIMH advisory council to endorse a comprehensive, long-term study of training grants. The NIMH findings were echoed by a 2005 National Research Council (NRC) report that found no useful statistics measuring the effectiveness of minority training grants and insufficient tracking of grantees’ careers post-PhD. However, the NRC recommended that NIH continue to focus on recruiting minority researchers for their intrinsic value to the individual scientist and society. These programs train scholars who will meet the nation’s research and workforce needs in an important domain.

ASA’s T-32 proposal was peer-reviewed last spring, and in mid-May ASA was notified that the ASA application had received an outstanding priority score, indeed, the best priority score among the applications reviewed. The success of this proposal has much to do with the work of Mercedes Rubio, Director of the ASA Minority Affairs Program. For the last two years, Mercedes’ research, mentoring and administrative skills have contributed immensely to the strength of the MFP program, and they will be the base upon which we continue to build the program to ensure its future success. We will be doing so, however, without Mercedes, as she is moving on to a position at NIMH. She will continue to face challenges and opportunities to support medical sociology and the sociology of mental illness in a political and fiscal climate that is even more uncertain than that of the past two years. Sociology as a scientific discipline will be well represented; but the staff of the ASA and the MFP family will miss her greatly.

Sally T. Hillsman, Executive Officer