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A Discrepancy

A study published in Science this past August by the University of Kansas’s Donna Ginther and her colleagues concluded that African-American researchers are 10 percentage points less likely to be awarded NIH funding as white researchers. Ginther et al. said racial bias wasn't likely to be the cause of this as the race of a grant applicant isn't included in the information provided to reviewers, but said they didn't know what was behind this discrepancy. At Scientific American, Case Western Reserve University researcher David Kaplan says one possible explanation is that the NIH peer review system is geared, not against one racial group or another, but against "the unfamiliar and unconventional."

"Expert reviewers are asked to provide detailed assessments of long, highly complex, extraordinarily technical documents, and they are given little time to do it," Kaplan says. "The reviewers are usually conversant with the specific area of research that the proposal addresses, which means that they come to the application with preconceived notions. Short deadlines encourage them to rely on established knowledge and sensibilities. In this scenario, reviewers are more comfortable with proposals from scientists they are familiar with — scientists they either know or know of." African-American researchers in the biomedical sciences are unfamiliar to reviewers, he adds, and their ideas may be new and bold. Further, at a time of tight budgets, getting NIH funding for unconventional research may be particularly tough.

NIH leaders have recognized that this is a problem and are working to fix it, Kaplan says, but the steps they've taken haven't gone far enough. "One solution might be for the NIH to establish multiple, distinct mechanisms for making funding decisions," he adds. "A lottery, for instance, would not result in racial disparity in grant awards. Neither would having rigorous sampling procedures for reviewers or peer review by crowdsourcing."