Racial Disparities in Funding At NIH

Posted by Osagie K. Obasogie September 22, 2011
Biopolitical Times

Mountains of evidence have shown that racial disparities are prevalent across the health sciences landscape. But new research shows that these disparities do not simply concern traditional issues such as relative rates of asthma or diabetes in certain populations, but also the funding mechanisms used to support scientific research.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the world’s largest source of funding for medical research; 83% of its $30 billion budget is set aside for research grants to support scientific investigation. These grants are both prestigious and competitive, leading them to be coveted by almost every researcher. But, a recent study led by Donna K. Ginther published in Science shows that the distribution of these research funds is dramatically skewed by race.

The initial surprise was that R01 proposals from black Ph.D. scientists (including 45% non-U.S. citizens) were extremely rare. They totaled only 1.4% of all applications, compared with 3.2% for Hispanics and 16% for Asian scientists. (By contrast, African Americans make up about 13% of the U.S. population.) About 60% of all proposals were deemed good enough to be scored; the rest were turned away with no score.

Among highly scored grants, minority groups were funded just as often as white scientists. But when Ginther's team included both scored and nonscored proposals, they found stark differences: While 29% of applications from whites were funded, only 25% of Asian applications were and only 16% of those from black scientists. In raw numbers, only 185 of nearly 23,400 funded R01 grants were from black Ph.D. scientists—less than 1%.

Science journalist Jocelyn Kaiser notes that, in short, “A black scientist's chance of winning NIH funding was 10 percentage points lower than that of a white scientist.”

These findings are sending shockwaves through the scientific community. Disparities among Asian applicants disappear when U.S. citizenship is factored in, which some attribute to the challenges faced by non-native English speakers in writing strong proposals. But while Black scientists’ relatively few applications are partially explained by an awareness of their diminished chances of receiving funding, Kaiser notes that it’s difficult to understand why Blacks who do apply are having radically different experiences than their white counterparts:

But for black applicants, even after accounting for the large number of non-U.S. citizens within that group, a 10-percentage-point gap remained because their proposals were more likely to be unscored or receive a low score. “It's shockingly different,” Ginther says. . . .

Why didn't black scientists' proposals do as well? One possibility is that more of the applications were of lower quality, Ginther says. She and her co-authors suggest that white scientists may enjoy a “cumulative advantage” in grant-writing—for example, through better access to mentors and research collaborations. Still, if that were the explanation, there should have been a gap for Hispanic scientists, too, suggests biologist Richard Morimoto of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

Another possibility is that some reviewers infer the race of an applicant from clues, such as the college attended or the name. That knowledge could influence assessments, Collins says. “I would like to believe that flagrant, intentional racism is rare,” but “more subtle kinds of bias can't be ruled out,” [Former NIH Director Francis] Collins says.

NIH has committed itself to identifying and remedying the causes of these racial disparities. But, these figures highlight the sobering reality that the biopolitics of race are not only about what research gets conducted and how results are reported, but also who gets funded to do research. One can imagine that a more racially diverse distribution of research funds may very well lead to studies that encourage a more responsible use of racial categories in scientific research.