Study: Black Researchers Receive Fewer NIH Grants

BY Jenny Marder  August 19, 2011 at 6:18 PM EDT


James A. Shannon Building at the National Institutes of Health. Photo by National Institutes of Health Library.

A new study by the National Institutes of Health found a disturbing gap between the number of grants awarded to white scientists and those awarded to black scientists. Black scientists are significantly less likely than their white counterparts to win a research grant from the agency, according to the study, which was published on Friday in the journal Science.

NIH commissioned the study to determine if researchers with similar research records but different ethnicities had the same chance of getting investigator-led grants, known as RO1 grants. The team, led by Donna Ginther, a professor of economics at the University of Kansas, found that for every 100 white scientists that submitted grants, 29 were financed by the NIH. For every 100 black scientists that submitted an application, 16 were awarded grants.

NIH Director Francis Collins called the findings “unacceptable.”

“The results of this study are disturbing and disheartening, and we are committed to taking action,” he said in a statement.

He also said that while blacks make up 10.2 percent of the U.S. population, they represent only 1.2 percent of NIH investigators on research grants. That’s “well short of anything you could call representative in our organization,” he said.

It is unclear whether discrimination is at the source of the disparity. Raynard Kington, a study author and president of Grinnell College, initiated the study while serving as deputy director of the NIH.

“The single thing that was most surprising was that in essence, white scientists and black scientists who had a similar array of markers for excellence, somehow in the review weren’t weighted in the same way,” he said. “That big difference in success rate meant that something wasn’t happening right.”

The lion’s share of the problem, he said, lies in the system that produces and supports researchers. That includes everything from high school education and mentoring to pre- and post-doctoral training.

“We need to take a deep drilldown and figure out how we can do a better job and plug every leak,” Kington said. “We don’t want people who have the capacity to do well to leak out, when if they had support, they could do great things.”

Part of the problem could also lie in the system of review and how decisions are made. Unconscious bias is always a possibility.

Ginther agreed that the problem had one of two explanations and was probably a combination of both. “It’s either that black applicants aren’t writing competitive proposals or it’s something going on in the review process, or both.”

One idea is to get researchers involved in the review process early in their careers, she said: “There’s nothing like reading other people’s proposals to learn how to write a good one.”

Another is to thoroughly evaluate and change the training programs at the NIH, specifically the minority training programs.

“These programs have been around a long time and they haven’t increased the diversity of the population or improved outcomes,” Ginther said.