Reposted from Science magazine, 25 July 2003

Should a program aimed at boosting the number of minority scientists target minority students? NIH thinks so, and the Supreme Court seems to agree

The U.S. Supreme Court was about to rule on whether colleges could use race-conscious admissions policies when the directors of the undergraduate Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) program gathered last month in California for their annual meeting. Many wondered if they were living on borrowed time.

They knew that the MARC program, sponsored since 1982 by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is possibly the last remaining federal effort to use race as a factor in determining eligibility. They also knew that its approach to increasing the number of minority scientists seemed out of step with the Bush Administration's public opposition to affirmative action and with the arguments it had filed with the court. As a result, many of the MARC directors worried that NIH might decide to reconsider its support for the $25-million-a-year program if the high court struck down the University of Michigan's policies.

But a week later, after returning to their universities, the 54 MARC directors breathed a sigh of relief. The high court had just ruled that race is a legitimate factor in admissions policies aimed at fostering campus diversity ( Science, 27 June, p. 2012), a stance that many took as a vote of confidence in their efforts, too. "We could have been set back considerably if the decision had gone the other way," says biochemist Elma Gonzales, who coordinates the MARC program at the University of California, Los Angeles. "I'm not sure if we'll expand. But the need is still there. And the court's ruling keeps the door open."

Indeed, MARC is all about opening doors. Each year, it gives 700 talented undergraduates an intensive introduction to the life of a scientist, subsidizing their education, putting them to work in the lab, and offering them one-on-one career counseling. For Nanibaa Garrison, born and raised on a Navajo reservation, MARC provided the opening for a biology degree this spring from the University of Arizona in Tucson and a chance to head off this fall to a doctoral program in human genetics at Stanford University. It's also nurtured her dream of returning to the reservation someday to do research that could improve the health of all Native Americans.


A life in the lab. Nanibaa Garrison says that the MARC program has sold her on a research career.

CREDIT: TOMOJI MASHIMO/INSTITUT PASTEUR

Like other federal and private efforts designed to benefit underrepresented minorities, MARC has come under scrutiny in recent years. Officially, the program is not race-exclusive, with NIH allowing institutions to set their own criteria for eligibility. "MARC is not limited to minorities," says Clifton Poodry, who oversees MARC and other minority training programs at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

At the same time, several MARC directors say that NIH expects them to recruit students from the groups designated as underrepresented in science: African Americans, Hispanics and Latinos, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders. "After all, the bottom line for NIH is how many underrepresented minorities pass through the program and go into Ph.D. programs," says Victor Rocha, MARC director at California State University, San Marcos. The program's Web site ( www.nigms.nih.gov/minority/marc.html) tiptoes around the issue. It notes that the awards provide support "for students who are members of minority groups underrepresented in the biomedical sciences," adding cryptically that these groups "include, but are not limited to," the four federally designated groups.

In practice, all but a few of the 54 MARC institutions restrict participation to the four groups. As a result, NIH estimates, more than 90% of the roughly 700 MARC scholars in any given year are members of those groups. The most notable exception is the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), which coincidentally has the largest MARC program in the country, where majority students from disadvantaged backgrounds typically fill about half a dozen of its 40 slots.

UMBC officials acknowledge that it wasn't their idea to open the program. But a 1996 federal court decision striking down racial criteria for another University of Maryland scholarship program for minorities forced their hand, explains Lasse Lindahl, chair of the biological sciences department and MARC director. "When we got the MARC grant in 1997, the state attorney general told us that we needed to follow the same rules," says Lindahl.

Garrison's dream of setting up a modern biology lab on the Navajo reservation grows out of her positive research experiences in the MARC program, she says. And her decision to pursue a doctoral degree "probably puts me ahead [academically] of everybody else in my high school graduating class." Her career goal also makes her a poster child for why MARC supporters believe a race-exclusive training program is important. "Researchers are attracted to topics that affect their lives. And minority scientists are more likely to work on issues that affect minority health," says biochemist Marc Tischler, who runs the University of Arizona's MARC program.

MARC at a glance

* Begun in 1982

* 54 participating universities

* About 700 students

* Major elements:

   &nbspTwo-year program

    $10,500/year stipend

   &nbspIn-term and summer research

   &nbspReduced tuition

   &nbspTravel grants

MARC directors have wrestled with the same issue, and most have come down in favor of race as the determining factor. "There are lots of other opportunities for majority students on this campus who want to do research," says Tischler. "This program is specifically designed for minorities." Mathematician Joaquin Bustos, who directs the MARC program at Arizona State University in Tempe, worries that some underrepresented minority students would be pushed aside if the program were opened up to everybody. "Many minority students aren't as prepared to apply for things like MARC," says Bustos. "Majority students are more likely to say, 'Hey, this is a great opportunity.' "

Still, a few MARC directors say that the program might benefit from broader eligibility standards. "It's important for students to hear a diversity of views," says health psychologist Cathie Atkins, an associate dean at San Diego State University, who notes that the university's MARC program includes workshops that are open to non-MARC students. "I'd like to see NIH go to a three-pronged standard [that includes socioeconomic factors]," she says, "so long as MARC students still demonstrate a desire to look at the racial disparities in our health care system."

Poodry says that NIH officials have resisted suggestions over the years to modify the MARC criteria to focus on low socioeconomic status rather than race. "The problem was, compared to whom?" he asks. "We could never figure out how to craft a definition of 'disadvantaged' that would work."

NIH has never figured out how to tell if MARC is delivering on its promise, either. Institutions submit reports on how many MARC scholars graduate, but Poodry admits that the material has never been analyzed. The long-term goal of turning MARC students into applicants for NIH's bread-and-butter R01 awards is even more elusive. "We have anecdotes but no hard data," says Poodry. A 1995 study "fell short of our expectations," he says, "and Congress has never asked us for that type of scorecard." Two years ago, NIH gave the National Academy of Sciences $1.5 million to review 20 programs aimed at boosting the number of underrepresented minorities, including MARC and two other undergraduate programs. But it will be at least another year before the academy issues its report.

Whatever the academy concludes about the effectiveness of the MARC program, most directors already believe fiercely in the importance of trying to attract more minorities into science. "I don't apologize for running a program that serves minorities," says Robert Koch, a cell biologist at California State University, Fullerton, and longtime MARC director. "I have a personal commitment to this program, and I feel that this is the only way we are going to make progress." Adds Rocha, "Even if NIH backed away [from MARC], we'd still try to attract more minorities into science."

Editor's note: MiSciNet receives funding from the MARC program at NIGMS

Jeffrey Mervis is a senior correspondent for Science magazine.