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Science: Black Applicants Less Likely to Receive Research Funds

Black scientists applying for U.S. National Institutes of Health research grants were less likely than white scientists to receive funding during the period from 2000 to 2006, according to a new study in the 19 August issue of Science. Donna Ginther of the University of Kansas and colleagues analyzed data representing over 40,000 Ph.D. researchers (submitting more than 80,000 applications) applying for Type 1 NIH R0 grants, a common type of federal research project grant usually awarded to individual investigators.

They found that black applicants, and to a lesser extent Asian applicants, had lower chances of receiving an award than white applicants did. Roughly 29% of applications from white researchers were funded, while 16% from black researchers and 25% from Asian researchers were funded.

The raw numbers indicated a 13 percentage-point difference between black and white researchers. The exact cause of the gap is still unknown, the Science authors said, but they suggest it may be caused in part by black researchers having less information about the NIH grant writing process, or less access to mentors at early career stages.

“The results of this study are disturbing and disheartening, and we are committed to taking action,” Collins said in a statement. “The strength of the U.S. scientific enterprise depends upon our ability to recruit and retain the brightest minds, regardless of race or ethnicity. This study shows that we still have a long way to go.”

University of Kansas researcher Donna Ginther discusses the Science report. [Video © University of Kansas]

The report authors used statistical models to look for other factors besides race that might have contributed to this difference. After controlling for the applicants’ educational background, country of origin, training, previous research awards, publication record, and employer characteristics, Ginther and colleagues found that black applicants were still 10 percentage points less likely than whites to be awarded NIH research funding. The difference in award probability for Asians was no longer statistically significant.

The models do not explain why this 10 percentage-point difference remained, but they suggest that the greatest differences between black and white applicants involved the effectiveness of previous NIH training programs (white applicants appear to benefit more) and the probability of receiving a priority score, which marks how likely an application is to be funded. Applications are evaluated by a peer-review process and then about half are scored and given further consideration. Overall, applications with strong scores were more likely to be funded, regardless of race.

Ginther and colleagues, who spoke with journalists about the study during a 17 August teleconference, propose that small differences in access to research resources and mentoring at early career stages may add up to larger differences between groups. “In order to improve the health outcomes of all Americans, it’s important for the biomedical workforce to reflect the diversity of the population,” Ginther said. “As the population becomes increasingly diverse, we will continue to get further from that goal unless the community intervenes.”

NIH Director Francis Collins and Principal Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak elaborate further on possible explanations in a related Policy Forum article in Science. In their article, Tabak and Collins respond to the findings reported by Ginther and colleagues, and they outline steps that NIH is taking to seek the causes of this disparity and to initiate remedies.


Read the full Ginther et al. report, accompanying Policy Forum, and Science News article free of charge.


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Listen to a 17 August teleconference with the Scienceauthors.