After a competitive application process, Cornell is one of seven institutions awarded $16 million as part of the inaugural Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation Grant by the National Institutes of Health. Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and Prof. Avery August, microbiology and immunology, received the grant to hire and support faculty who diversify biomedical and health researchers at Cornell.
The FIRST grant aims to build self-reinforcing scientific communities that are committed to diversity and inclusive excellence. A self-reinforcing community is similar to a positive feedback loop, as the grant intends to generate positive effects that will ideally create more forward movement for years.
August explained that the NIH intends for universities to use the grant to bring in diverse new faculty, start their research labs and develop faculty networks among those new and returning.
“The awarding of this grant to Cornell is extremely significant … grant reviewers, and the NIH, recognized our leading work around the issue of faculty diversity,” August said.
August plans for Cornell’s FIRST grant to build off of the University’s previous work and focus on the interdisciplinary hiring of faculty across six colleges and 20 departments. One of the project’s key goals is to hire and retain 10 new assistant researchers across the next five years. This will increase the number of historically underrepresented faculty across the biological, biomedical and health sciences departments, as outlined in the proposal submitted by August.
“Our analysis of faculty hiring over the last 10 or so years suggests that we are able to retain faculty of color at similar rates as for majority faculty,” August said.
Still, the overall number of faculty of color at Cornell remains noticeably low. According to a National Center for Education Statistics survey, as of Nov. 1, 2020, Cornell had 1,059 tenured professors for the 2020-2021 school year. Just 228 were faculty of color, which includes Hispanic/Latino, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, two or more races and unknown race and ethnicity.
“If even one of those faculty members is not retained, it’s a much more noticeable and significant loss,” August said.
However, the grant will not end with the hiring of new faculty. According to August, Cornell will establish an extensive mentoring and support network among both the new hires and the pre-existing faculty in departments where they are being appointed.
To sustain these initiatives, the awarded grant is over $16 million — a striking amount for a University with a roughly $10 billion endowment this year.
August said just 5 percent of the endowment is typically allotted for educational activities. External funding from grants such as FIRST are therefore necessary to support initiatives such as increasing the number of underrepresented faculty.
Cornell is the only member of the Ivy League to receive the NIH grant. The other awardees in the initial cohort are Drexel University, Florida State University, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, San Diego State University, the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Tuskegee University. The NIH plans to fund 12 awards total within the next three years.
“There are certainly disparities in NIH funding by institutions, where better resourced institutions tend to be more successful in competing for NIH funding,” August said.
Cornell’s established structures and funds to support faculty make Cornell more appealing to the NIH, as it is more likely to be able to use these resources to successfully sustain diversity initiatives, even after funding runs out, according to August.
To hold Cornell accountable for making progress and accomplishing its goals, August said the NIH will oversee the grantees by conducting rigorous evaluations of the program activities.
The NIH FIRST program will fund a Coordination and Evaluation Center, which uses data metrics to analyze the effects of new faculty on institutional culture at all awarded institutions.
Each awardee will be responsible for collecting qualitative and quantitative data to share with the Coordination and Evaluation Center which will develop the final FIRST Data Sharing Plan.
The lessons uncovered by the seven institutions will then be compiled and assessed at the NIH center to share the findings with the biomedical research community at large.