Opinion: On Being an “African-American Scientist”

If African-American researchers are ever to gain equal opportunities in science, even subtle cases of differential treatment must be stamped out.

By Raynard S. Kington | March 5, 2013

Raynard S. Kington, president of Grinnell CollegeImage: Justin Hayworth/Grinnell CollegeA recent experience reminded me of the challenges related to identity and experience in the scientific realm. Two years ago, after leaving my job as principal deputy director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to assume the presidency of Grinnell College, I was senior author of a paper about differential funding rates between African-American and white applicants for NIH grants. Our paper, published in Science in August 2011, demonstrated that African-American scientists are significantly less likely than their white counterparts to receive NIH funding, even when they are similarly qualified.

Our study generated a great deal of media attention; and in every news interview I gave on this topic I repeatedly made two points. First, while our findings suggested that the NIH review system might contain an anti-African-American bias that warranted further analysis, I did not believe that review bias, if confirmed, was the major driver of the differential funding rates between African-American and white applicants. Second, I emphasized my belief that funding differences were instead more likely to reflect subtle and insidious, if unintentional, differences in the experiences of African-American scientists.

And so I was dismayed by a recent news story on www.the-scientist.com about our report that seemed to prove our point about the existence of such unintentional bias. The story identified me as an “African-American scientist,” as have other stories I’ve read over the years.

Is that who I am? And if yes, is it relevant to my research?

Let me answer the second question first. The Scientist article to which I refer mentioned four scientists—and I was the only scientist who was identified by race. Moreover, the article didn’t mention any other demographic characteristics about me—not my age, my gender, my ethnicity, my sexual orientation, my geographic location, not even my current job as president of one of the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges. Nor did it include demographic information about the three other scientists mentioned in the story.

By noting my race, the article seemed to me to plant a small seed of doubt about either my integrity or my competence as a scientist. Why am I an “African-American scientist” while others are simply “scientists?” Is the implication that an African-American scientist is a special type? Do we presume that this type has different views? Even if that was not the article’s intent, the reader’s impression might be the same.

It would be a mistake to think that my concern about the identification of my race reflects anything less than my profound pride in being an African American who is the great-grandson of slaves. It is because of that pride that I take issue with the disrespectful mention of my racial identity in this context.  

In other words, and to step back and answer the first of my two questions, I am, in fact, an African-American scientist. But that’s not all I am.

Like all scientists, I have worked hard in my career, and I have had the good fortune to benefit from several mentors and advisors, men and women of diverse races and ethnicities, religions, and backgrounds who opened doors for me and made sure that I had opportunities to succeed.

Take this one, small instance of how a reporter referred to me differently, change a detail or two, multiply it by the thousands of opportunities for such subtle bias to manifest itself in the day-to-day life of a developing scientist who happens to be of African-American descent, let it simmer and expand through several phases of a career, and you could easily produce the kind of federal funding inequalities demonstrated in our paper.

I look forward to the day when all scientists are given equal opportunity—based on objective criteria and equal support and mentoring—to demonstrate their ability to contribute to the advancement of science. We have so many large societal problems that can be solved only by the rigorous application of scientific methods, and we cannot afford to miss a single potentially great scientific mind. Clearly, as our 2011 paper suggests—and as this recent, seemingly casual reference to this “African-American scientist” reminds us—we are still a long way from that day.

Raynard S. Kington, M.D., Ph.D., is the president of Grinnell College. Before coming to Grinnell, he held leadership positions at the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Avatar of: LeeH


Posts: 35

March 5, 2013

I like to think that grants are approved on scientific merit, but that's not always the case given conflicts and bias on the science, but mostly that is the case.   I doubt that race is really a consideration by reviewers.  Institutions, track record, etc are more likely to be relevant outside of the science proposed.  To the extent that race comes into play based on these factors then there may be a perception of bias.

Avatar of: SL


Posts: 2

March 5, 2013

Not too long ago, interviewing a student for a postbac program, I asked him: what is the biggest challenge you will face to succeed if we take you? His answer: my family. I asked: why? His answer: because I will need to spend a lot of time in the library, and my family reaction is: what? Are you turning white on us?

So knowing that the successful Dr. Kington is African-American can be a powerful influence in the mind of future scientists that may think "I cannot do this".....

I am convinced that grant success is related to my story above....

Avatar of: RobertE


Posts: 12

March 5, 2013

Dr. Kington is correct. By being labeled as an "African American scientist," whereas I would just be a "scientist," the label confirms that the default assumption about "scientist" is that they are white. Therefore he is labeled as being different in some way that may or may not be relevant to his qualifications. I found myself doing the same thing the other day in the airport where I saw an absolutely cute little girl of maybe 5 years of age. She was incredibly cute, but I labeled her as African American. Does that imply that cute little girls are usually white? I hate to admit that there may be a certain truth to that. I wonder if the little girl were Asian if I would have labeled her as a "cute little Asian girl. Possibly, but less likely than to label her as African American.

I also wonder if Fr. Kington's results reflect a subtle bias against HBC colleges because there is a concentration of African American faculty there, It would be interesting to compare "Environment" scores on grants originating in HBC vs equivalent institutions that are not HBC. I am not saying scores should be be compared to premier institutions because nobody really compares to them.

Nonetheless, when I consider how far we have come in my lifetime from overt segregation and discrimination to the discussion of subtle biases, I am encouraged.

Avatar of: Pilgrim


Posts: 2

March 5, 2013

Practically all I know about this author is that he is black and the president of Grinnell College. Over the years, it seems that both pieces of information are similar in that they apparently express the author’s qualifications to be heard. It is ironic, the author complains about differential treatment and then includes in his article anecdotal information wondering why he believes he is being treated differently. In my opinion, his treatment is due to an over abundance of deference for fear of somehow being accused of being raciest. However, there is apparently no way of escaping such an accusation. If you mention his race, you are racist. If you don’t, you are racist. From my perspective, anyone who identifies themselves as xxx-American is racist. When we start identifying ourselves as Americans only, then we may start to feel like Americans only. Until then, no matter what, hyphen-Americans will feel they are being treated prejudicially because of their race. (as an afterthought, maybe we should all call ourselves literally “hyphen”-Americans to let people know that we are different without identifying our race) Even this message that I am writing is surely racist because I express an observation about race that is politically incorrect. Of course, if I told you that I am African-American, then everything would be ok or would I then be labeled as an “Uncle Tom.” No matter what, you can’t win for trying because, apparently, everyone is a racist without even trying.

Avatar of: Alr


Posts: 1

March 5, 2013

Similar subtle comments relating to gender are frequently made as numerous studies have shown. 

Apparently being a white male automaticly also makes someone a better scientist and qualifies a person to receive research grants more often as well as better paid jobs.

Avatar of: Andreas


Posts: 1

March 5, 2013

I do not agree at all with the issue that has been raised by this article. I do not believe that the evaluation of a grant application has a racial factor. Most of the scientists have endorsed humanistic values (look at the number of agnostics, unbelivers in all academia around the world that endorsing humanistic and non racial values).

There is no multiculturalism in science. Science is science, there is no feministe science, black science, white science, etc ... . It is "the republic of letters". There have been attemps by post-modernists to make a relativistic stand, but this is intellectual rubbish.

So I do not see the point here and to me there a no african-american scientists but only scientists, which is the best anti-racist stand one can make, period !

Avatar of: nepotism


Posts: 2

March 5, 2013

I'm glad to see that a voice has been raised and it is published. I do see various kinds of biases in academia based on race, gender and religious ethnicity but they are always covered up and slided under the carpet by saying these things are against the law (written) and do not exist. In actuality that's not the case.

Avatar of: Howard A, Doughty

Howard A, Doughty

Posts: 11

March 5, 2013

The category of "African-American" remains important, sociologically though not intellectually in terms of the merits of grants applications.

The concern should not stop there. "Black" and "white" people can disguise their origins. John Smith and Mary Jones are names that give no hint of skin color.

Not so much with Deepak Ramachandran, Vihn Nguyen or Xi Zhou.

In fact, it was not so long ago that Moses Finkelstein, Vito Cavaluzzo and even Seamus O'Sullivan would have been given short shrift, and their sisters Golda, Maria and Margaret would have fared worse.

Apart from the fact that we are all ultimately of African origin, the fact is that racism, misogyny and other forms of prejudice are endemic to our society. Accordingly, for the foreseeable future, strict measures must be put (or remain) in place to compel fairness in all aspects of scientific (and other) endeavours.

And, before anyone hits the libel button, all first names were taken randomly from a local phone directory and all last names from a more distant phone directory; so, they were constructed to illustrate a point, not to refer to any particular person.

Avatar of: mightythor


Posts: 88

March 5, 2013

Did any of the other scientists mentioned in the article publish papers on discrimination against their own self-identified ethnic group(s)?  If you go around beating a drum, you might end up being identified as a drummer.

Avatar of: kpetrak


Posts: 14

March 5, 2013

I agree that the grant-application review process is not without faults but I would argue that this is in no way intentional. After all, reviewers bring to the review their own prejudices , bias, interests and preferences, and I do not think none of us can claim to be free of our human faults.

My surprise and comment relates to Dr. Kington's surprising sensitivity to the issue of colour and potential prejudice. In any situation, if one consideres the colour of the skin to be an issue, that attitude in itself is likely to make the person gravitate to a conclusion that negative outcomes are due to colour prejudice on the part of others rather than looking for reasons for it in himself. It is a well-known and easy option. 

Further, for publishing a study claiming that "..."... African-American scientists are significantly less likely than their white counterparts to receive NIH funding", Dr. Kington must have defined who an "African-American scientist" is. Provided that he matches that definition, why should he be now surprised to be included in that group, and be described as such?!

Avatar of: FJScientist


Posts: 31

March 5, 2013

Dr. Kington is an accomplished scientist and deserves to be recognized as such, period. It is hard to say why reporters interject descriptives irrelevant to a story. As others have commented, perhaps they think they are highlighting 'role models' for when describing the subject of a story as African-American (or women or pick your category). After reading Dr. Kington's commentary, it is clear that the reporter did not ask him whether he want to be highlighted as such.

As for racial biases in the peer-review process, reviewers are not aware of the race of an applicant (unless known personally to the reviewer). There is no personal information beyond the current and past academic positions. There is far more opportunity to express a bias against females since most names (which the reviewer sees) are gender-specific.

I agree with Dr. Kington that sociologic influences outside of the grant evaluation process can impede the success rates of some. The one element that many tend to overlook is the influence of your current and past positions. So, in the context of what sociologic influence is correlated with the lower funding rate noted by Dr. Kington, one needs to compare similarly qualified individuals from similar institutions for the following reasons.

If you are in a recognized academic research institution, your environment is considered positively and most often actually is better. Your ideas and supporting data can be improved by by being surrounded by colleagues who tend to be already are funded, sit on grant review panels and can provide far better advice about what constitutes a topical proposal of high impact, innovation and signficance. You also can finding someone locally to provide support about the tiny tehcnical details that sometimes block for months progress towards obtaining the preliminary data necessary for success. 

Avatar of: Algie


Posts: 1

March 5, 2013

As the first "African-American Research Scientist" employed by my state health department, I appreciate the challenges the author refers to. While I'm personnally proud of being a "ground-breaker", the problem arises in the minds of my white colleagues who make their own assumptions about what being an African-American Scientist means. Unfortunately in my experience the age-old stereoptype stubbornly persists that ones race is deteminative of one's intelligence. I'm often challenged to "prove myself" and any mistake I make is seen as proof that the stereotype is accurate. My colleagues do not have to work under this type of scrutiny and I'm often exasperated that even at this late date in history, old predjudices remain even in the field of science where practioners are assumed to be more enlightened than the general populace. Early in my career, I took great pains to provide the "proof" of my intellectual competence to the doubters, but now I've grown to be more secure in who I am, and what my abilities are, so I no longer feel compelled to prove anything to anyone. I now understand that the problem is not mine - it's theirs, and if they underestimate me, they will suffer the consequences of that erroneous assumption. Personnally I'm proud to be an African-American Scientist regardless of what conotation it carries in the minds of others. It means to me that I've over-come many external and internal obstacles and I can personify the truth that science can be for anyone who wants it. 

Avatar of: AAF


Posts: 3

March 5, 2013

I have been an NIH peer reviewer for more than 6 years. I can not tell the race of the applicant nor do I try to figure it out. In my experience proposals are judged on their scientific merit. There are biases but these tend to be scientific such as a bias toward certain types of technologies or certain disease areas.

Avatar of: mlerman


Posts: 71

March 5, 2013

If a grant proposal would be signed as follows:

"Dr. Anonimous, Ph.D., (M.D).

IQ: 100-200,

email: anonimous@gmail.com



There would be no problems to get an objective review and decision

When I was proposed for tenure I was asked to provide a list of people who could review my work and qualifications; none of them was contacted...

Michael Lerman, Ph.D., M.D.



Avatar of: Ed M.

Ed M.

Posts: 45

April 14, 2013

There is only one "race"- human.

The "racial" divisions were made up by pseudo-scientists as a method of falsely categorizing our single species into (conveniently) hierarchical groups- the putative"races"- and thereby keeping people artifically enslaved to a ridiculous "self-image" and distorted "definition" that has no more import than eye color, hair color or similar accidents of fate.

Since no one ever chose their "race"- as no Scottish Terrier or Daschund ever chose to their "rassen" (to use the German original for our word "race", which simply means "breed")- how could it mean anything?

Or be a source of "pride", or "shame", being utterly random?

This "race" nonsense must be transcended or it drags us into endless servitude to nescience.

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