Why Supporting Future Scholars From Diverse Backgrounds Matters for Health Equity
Research is stronger, more accurate, actionable, and equitable when people with varied perspectives and lived experiences design and conduct it. That's why we believe in increasing representation in research and promoting greater equity and inclusion in the field.
Editor’s note: The Health Equity Scholars for Action funding opportunity is now closed. Sign up for funding alerts to be notified when new opportunities are announced.
We all want to believe that academic environments exist where everyone has a fair and just opportunity to do their best work and advance their careers—no matter their race, ethnicity, lived experience, or background. But as the nonlinear path from my college studies in nutrition and biology to a career in philanthropy revealed, this isn’t always the case. It’s why I’m personally committed to changing this reality for others.
Always focused on the intersection of public health and social justice, I moved from student to advisor, faculty, committee participant, and administrator working in academia. I enjoyed teaching, cultivating relationships to help students set the stage for their success, and participating in an intellectually critical environment to advance health and wellbeing for all. But I also felt, firsthand, the barriers that impede many faculty of color.
I was recruited to numerous committees and conversations—additional burdens, especially as a junior faculty member—that were not recognized when considered for promotion. I was often tapped to provide a perspective or share my personal experience because people like me were not well-represented in various groups (or in health sciences, generally). While I was happy to make my voice heard, these extra responsibilities occupied time and effort that I could have otherwise devoted toward scholarship or personal development.
Initially, I had little awareness that these additional responsibilities were wearing me down, making me feel small and ineffective and, often, directly conflicting with my personal life. I struggled with knowing how and when to say “no” when there were so few who shared my experience. Over time, I realized that I lacked the support system I needed to overcome the challenges of underrepresented early career faculty. And I wasn’t alone.
Today, I have the privilege of contributing to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's efforts to fuel change by deeply embedding equity in how we create evidence and share knowledge—and by expanding opportunities for those who participate in the process. And every day, I reflect on my personal journey to help make academia a more inclusive space.
As I experienced, early career researchers with underrepresented perspectives and backgrounds can face barriers to admission and career advancement within universities. When considering promotion or tenure, academia often relies on overly narrow expectations of excellence that do not recognize all the contributions made by scholars from non-majority groups. The field of health science researchers is predominantly White and often connected to large, well-funded institutions. In many instances, researchers with experience, cultural competency, training, background, or skills needed to effectively conduct community-engaged research are simply left out.
By directly acknowledging and addressing these barriers together we can create more durable, more accurate, and more actionable evidence. Diversifying who does research paints a more complete picture of health disparities and potential solutions. It also incorporates the historical and cultural contexts essential to advancing health and racial equity and enriches the information and data decisionmakers use to shape policies, programs, and practices.
The research community plays a critical role in supporting health and racial equity. RWJF’s Health Equity Scholars for Action (HES4A) program challenges assumptions, biases, and outdated conventions in research and academia by supporting early-career researchers from backgrounds that have historically been underrepresented in research disciplines.
Scholars receive a “more than money” grant award that includes:
- Funding for research that helps identify the root causes of health disparities and potential solutions to improve health, equity, and wellbeing.
- A mentor and career coach.
- Engagement with a professional network committed to advancing the health equity research field.
Leadership is as complex and dynamic as the people, communities, and situations that rely on it. While Health Equity Scholars for Action does not address all the barriers in academia, it offers an opportunity to nurture new leaders to create a body of evidence around the policies and practices that support everyone living the healthiest life possible in the place they call home.
Shape Future Leadership in Health Equity Research
What I have loved most about a career in public health is the ever-expanding centering of communities facing structural barriers, bias, or discrimination, and their authentic engagement in developing solutions. Health Equity Scholars for Action is one of many ways to shift power, transform the research field, and create a healthier and more equitable future for all.
Help advance health equity in our communities by developing much-needed research evidence. Sign up for our emails to be notified of the next research funding opportunity. >>
About the Author
Sheldon Oliver Watts, program officer, brings his expertise in academic and community settings to his work with the Foundation’s Research, Evaluation, and Learning (REL) unit. Through his work he weds his interest and experience in population/community health and wellbeing with RWJF’s goal of advancing health equity and promoting a Culture of Health.