Study Confirms Racial Gap In NIH Grant Approvals

August 19, 2011

Stack of moneyA recent study revealed some alarming news--black scientists are significantly less likely than white scientists to win grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The study, which was commissioned by the NIH, reviewed 83,000 grant applicants between 2000 and 2006 and found that only 16 percent of grants from black applicants were approved, compared to 29 percent submitted by white applicants, reported The New York Times. As The Chronicle of Higher Education pointed out, because the NIH only approves about 30 percent of applications, this means that whites are roughly twice as likely as blacks to get approved.

What was even more alarming, however, was the fact that even when researchers made adjustments to ensure that they compared similar applicants--such as making sure the scientists were from comparable institutions and had similar academic track records--the discrepancy still existed. As The Washington Post reported, even when other potential factors were taken into account, black scientists were still about 10 percentage points less likely than whites to get approved by the NIH.

"We have a very serious issue," said Donna K. Ginther, director of the University of Kansas Center of Science, Technology and Economic Policy, who led the study. "Science needs to reflect the diversity and power and potential of the population."

The New York Times noted that the study did not show the same kind of disparities for Asian and Hispanic applicants. Asians were somewhat less successful than whites, but when researchers excluded foreign-born scientists, the gap disappeared. This is likely due to the fact that foreign-born applicants may have difficulty writing a successful grant.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, researchers were unable to determine the cause behind the black-white disparity, but were convinced that it was not a result of overt racism. The only conclusion that could be reached was that there was a difference in the quality of applications or some type of unconscious bias, or a combination of both.

"That's the frustrating thing about this paper--in most cases, you can come up with a reasonable explanation looking at the observable characteristics, and we haven't been able to," said Ginther.

The NIH, which is the world's largest source of financing for medical research, has worked to reduce racial disparities in its funding for decades. NIH Director Francis S. Collins promised to address the problems that were cited in the study. The New York Times reported that the institutes have put together a task force to follow up on the study's findings. Experiments will be conducted to look at the current review process, including tests that will remove all indications of an applicant's race, such as name and educational background. Furthermore, the institutes will recruit more young researchers for review committees so that they can gain experience in how to write a successful application. The Chronicle of Higher Education noted that the NIH will also try new training methods to overcome conscious or subconscious racial bias.

Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, pointed out that fixing the problem will require a lot of hard work on a more personal level.

"You can't continue to rely upon that established core of people who are part of the network," she said. "You've got to go make some new friends and branch out and extend your network."

Compiled by Heidi M. Agustin


"Black Scientists Less Likely to Win Federal Research Grants, Study Reports," NYTimes.com, August 18, 2011, Kenneth Chang

"Blacks less likely than whites to get NIH grants, study finds," washingtonpost.com, August 18, 2011, Rob Stein

"NIH Pledges Action After Review Affirms Racial Gap in Grant Approvals," chronicle.com, August 18, 2011, Paul Basken

"Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Awards," sciencemag.org, August 19, 2011, Donna K. Ginther, Walter T. Schaffer, Joshua Schnell, Beth Masimore, Faye Liu, Laurel L. Haak, Raynard Kington

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