Although drug abuse touches the lives of people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds, its consequences are borne unequally. Members of minority populations often experience far worse outcomes than whites despite similar rates of addiction. Most notably, two other epidemics closely related to drug abuse—HIV infection and criminal justice involvement—are significantly higher among some racial and ethnic minorities than among other groups.
Responding to this situation, NIDA established its Special Populations Office (SPO) within the Office of the Director to coordinate research and training relevant to minority populations. Since its inception in 1993, the SPO's mission has expanded beyond racial and ethnic minorities to include other underserved groups, such as people with disabilities and residents of rural areas. The SPO promotes addiction science that examines health disparities affecting various groups and fills gaps in knowledge about drug abuse in groups that researchers have not extensively studied. Another major goal of the SPO is to foster the development of research careers among members of underrepresented communities.
Dovetailing With the Divisions
The SPO developed and coordinates a strategic plan to guide the Institute's efforts to reduce addiction-related health disparities. The plan encourages NIDA Divisions and Offices to support research that:
- Determines the rates, patterns, and causes of drug abuse among minority populations;
- Develops and implements culturally specific drug abuse prevention programs, particularly in high-risk settings and hard-to-reach communities;
- Ensures the inclusion of underserved populations in treatment research and clinical trials and identifies ways to improve their treatment adherence and outcomes; and
- Applies basic and clinical neuroscience tools—for example, genetic and brain imaging studies—to identify racial and ethnic differences in vulnerability and resilience to addiction.
The SPO collaborates closely with NIDA's Divisions and other Offices as they introduce new research programs. The SPO also coordinates research that addresses disparities with a major impact on public health. For example, it hosted the African American Initiative Committee, which encouraged research on reasons and remedies for African-Americans' disproportionately high rates of HIV infection and involvement in the criminal justice system. While developing the initiative, the SPO conferred with African-American leaders and other experts on ways to better deliver HIV education, testing, counseling, and treatment in this community.
Bolstering Infrastructure, Expanding Opportunity
One of the SPO's major goals is to strengthen the infrastructure—well-trained scientists, strong academic institutions, and knowledgeable communities—for conducting research on health disparities related to drug abuse. Infrastructure-building activities include efforts, such as mentoring of faculty and students, to improve the representation of minority scholars in addiction science. Among the core programs that the SPO manages are:
- The Diversity-Promoting Institutions Drug Abuse Research Program, which increases the addiction research capacity of institutions that serve students from diverse and disadvantaged backgrounds;
- The Research Supplements to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research Program, which provides funding to enable existing research projects to add minority, disabled, or disadvantaged students or investigators to their teams;
- The Special Populations Research Development Seminar Series, in which extramural scientists and NIDA staff members offer technical assistance and information—including feedback on research ideas, NIDA priorities, and grant processes—to scientists from underrepresented groups who are poised to become independent scientific investigators;
- Summer Research With NIDA, which since 1997 has connected NIDA-funded scientists at more than 200 research sites with about 775 high school and undergraduate students from groups underrepresented in the biomedical and behavioral sciences; and
- SPO-supported Minority Work Groups of African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans/Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans/Alaska Natives, which offer essential community consultation for the research process. Work Group members, who are experts from outside NIDA, advise the NIDA director on minority health research and scientific development needs of their particular minority communities that will lead to effective prevention and treatment approaches. Work Group members also encourage people from their communities to enter the field of addiction research, participate in mentoring, and help development research capacity.
Meeting Dynamic Challenges
Psychologist Dr. Lula Beatty has led the Office's efforts since its inception. She previously served in NIDA's Prevention Research Branch and conducted research at Howard University. Dr. Beatty says that since the SPO began in 1993, she has observed an increase in the number of researchers interested in addiction-related health disparities. The diversity of the research workforce has also improved: Many of the young scholars who attended SPO training workshops have succeeded in obtaining NIDA grants and now serve as faculty mentors for junior scientists. And there are more young potential researchers from special populations in the pipeline. The Summer Research With NIDA program, which attracted just 20 interested students in its first year, now draws nearly 300 applicants annually.
Many challenges remain for the SPO. "New drug problems and new health disparities constantly emerge. What's more, economic downturns and changes in the social safety net can worsen existing problems and introduce new ones," says Dr. Beatty. "However, addiction research on special populations has already led to improvements—for example, the growth in community-based drug abuse prevention."