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Race and NIH Funding

Black NIH grant applicants are 10 percentage points less likely than whites to be awarded NIH research funding, says an NIH-commissioned study. The study, which appears in Science, drew upon data submitted to NIH's grants data system between 2000 and 2006 that included 40,069 unique investigators and upon data from Thomson Reuters Web of Science and Journal Citation Reports. "We find it troubling that the typical measures of scientific achievement — NIH training, previous grants, publications, and citations — do not translate to the same level of application success across race and ethnic groups," the researchers write. "Our models controlled for demographics, education and training, employer characteristics, NIH experience, and research productivity, yet they did not explain why blacks are 10 percentage points less likely to receive R01 funding compared with whites." Asian applicants were 4 percent points less likely to receive funding, but that effect disappeared when foreign-born researchers were excluded.

"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," says lead author Donna Ginther, a professor of economics at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

"This situation is not acceptable," NIH Director Francis Collins tells The New York Times. "This is not one of those reports that we will look at and then put aside." In a commentary in Science, Collins and Lawrence Tabak outline steps that NIH is taking to try to remedy the disparity. For example, Center for Scientific Review has begun a new Early Career Reviewer program that is specifically targeting underrepresented groups — as serving on a review committee was found to be associated with grant application success — and NIH aims to identify better approaches to increasing diversity in the biomedical workforce.

Otis Brawley, who is the chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society and who is black, tells the Times that the effect may be due to unconscious bias rather than blatant racism. Collins and Tabak add in their commentary that they will run pilot experiments to assess the possibility of unconscious bias during the review process. "Even today, in 2011, in our society, there is still an unconscious, insidious form of bias that subtly influences people's opinions," Collins tells the Times. "I think that may be very disturbing for people in the scientific community to contemplate, but I think we have to take that as one of the possibilities and investigate it and see if that is in fact still happening."