Last week, a study released in Science reported a disturbing gap in the funding success rates of black scientists. The study, commissioned by the National Institutes of Health, looked at 83,000 RO1 grant applications from 2000 to 2006 and compared the applicants’ self-identified ethnicity to the probability of receiving an award. The authors hypothesized that scientists with similar research records and affiliations would have a similar likelihood of receiving awards, regardless of ethnicity. However, the study found that black scientists were 10 percentage points less likely to receive NIH funding than white scientists. What was perhaps most striking, was that the significant disparity remained even when potentially confounding factors, such as educational background, training, previous research award success, and publication record, were accounted for.
The authors were unable to determine the exact cause of the disparity, but suggested that it might be the result of small advantages white scientists gain throughout their career. Unfortunately, the gap could also result from biases, however unconscious, toward white scientists. In an interview for NPR on Friday, Raynard Kington, former Deputy Director of NIH and one of the study’s authors, agreed that this data raises concerns over the impartiality of the peer review process stating, “if indeed we are biased in the way that we review some of our applications, that means that the American people’s money may not be going to the strongest scientific ideas.”
These findings are particularly disturbing to the administration at the NIH which has a long history of working to increase the diversity of the biomedical research workforce through the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities and programs such as Research Centers on Minority Institutions, Minority Access to Research Careers, and Diversity Supplements. NIH Director Francis Collins was “deeply dismayed” by the findings of the study. He and Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak co-authored a response in Science detailing NIH efforts to increase diversity in the biomedical workforce and to identify the cause of the disparity. To provide additional suggestions and feedback about this issue, visit the NIH Feedback website. Additionally, Science will hold an online chat on August 25 at 3PM EDT to discuss the study and challenges facing minority and women researchers.