An outstretched hand holds a collection of prize medals in the sunlight
An outstretched hand holds a collection of prize medals in the sunlight

Analysis: Asian Researchers Scarce Among Biomedical Award Winners

Multiple prestigious US biomedical research awards have rarely or never been granted to a scientist with Asian ancestry, illustrating racial bias within American research societies and institutions, a researcher argues.

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Dan Robitzski

Dan is a Staff Writer and Editor at The Scientist. He writes and edits for the news desk and oversees the “The Literature” and “Modus Operandi” sections of the monthly TS Digest and quarterly print magazine. He has a background in neuroscience and earned his master's in science journalism at New York University.

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Feb 4, 2022

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A commentary article published Thursday (February 3) in Cell makes the data-driven argument that scientists of Asian descent are routinely overlooked for prominent biomedical research prizes, despite collectively making numerous valuable contributions to their respective research fields.

Yuh Nung Jan, a molecular physiologist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, gathered data on 15 prestigious biomedical prizes and awards conferred by US organizations and tallied how many winners were Asian, both over the course of the past decade and since each prize was first given, and uncovered what he describes as a dismaying underrepresentation of Asian researchers.

According to the paper, Jan adopted the National Institutes of Health’s definition of Asian: “A person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam.”

A table summarizing Jan’s findings shows that two of the prizes—the Genetics Society of America Medal, established in 1981, and the Gruber Prize in Genetics, established in 2001—have never been granted to an Asian researcher. Another four—the Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal from the Genetics Society of America, the E. B. Wilson Medal from the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB), the March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology, and the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize—haven’t gone to an Asian researcher in more than a decade.

Overall, Asian scientists account for just 6.8 percent of the awards’ winners. By contrast, Jan’s commentary cites 2019 statistics from the National Science Foundation showing that Asian researchers make up 31 percent of biomedical science graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, 21.3 percent of faculty, and 12.3 percent of tenure-track faculty in the US.

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“I was surprised at this severe under-representation of Asians,” Jan says. “I don’t know if this is a well-known issue among researchers. I suspect many people are not aware of this degree of bias,” which, he says, “is a manifestation of the larger issue of under-appreciation of Asians in [the] US.”

“For decades, Asian American researchers have often found themselves passed up for key awards or even proper recognition as co-authors or contributors on papers,” Thu Nguyen, the executive director of the advocacy organization OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates, tells The Scientist over email. “Even today, it can be difficult to be heard and recognized in labs that are not led by a Principal Investigator of color. These findings—while limited to biomedical research prizes—confirm a disappointing but unsurprising reality: researchers of Asian descent, especially Asian women scientists, are underappreciated and their work remains mostly invisible.”

Slow progress

Jan tells The Scientist he was motivated to look at the demographics of major award recipients after hearing that ASCB changed its policies to allow for self-nomination for the E. B. Wilson medal and its other prizes. While Jan calls the change “a laudable effort to open up the awards and increase the diversity of the candidates to be honored by ASCB,” he says he decided to look into awards’ recipients more broadly and was struck by how predominately white the winners were.

William Bement, a cell and molecular biologist at University of Wisconsin-Madison who chairs an ASCB task force formed in 2020 to address the issue of award recipient diversity, tells The Scientist that introducing self-nominations was one of several steps taken so far that he hopes will “collectively add up to a larger progressive change over time.”

The task force was formed after the ASCB performed an internal audit and arrived at similar numbers as Jan regarding who won its senior-level awards. Prior to that, Bement says that no one at the society had taken the time to check the demographics of who was winning its awards and whether that breakdown mirrored the ASCB’s membership.

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In addition to allowing for self-nomination—Bement says “there are probably people out there who are worthy of an award but are maybe hesitant to ask someone to nominate them—the task force also simplified the applications process, making it easier for researchers who don’t have the support of an administrative team to submit for consideration, and also added more “arms-length referees” to serve as impartial judges in the process to make sure researchers on awards committees didn’t simply vote for their colleagues.

Finally, Bement says that the ASCB will collect more data going forward—winners’ but not nominees’ names were recorded until recently—allowing it to track its progress toward a more diverse and representative pool of awards nominees and winners, both with regard to Asian researchers and other underrepresented groups.

“We absolutely don’t want to be in a position where we’re pitting one underrepresented group against another one,” Bement says. “This means that we have to be continually monitoring things. We look forward to a future where ideally the makeup of the awardees mirrors American society.”

For decades, Asian American researchers have often found themselves passed up for key awards or even proper recognition as co-authors or contributors on papers.

—Thu Nguyen, OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates

“The Gruber Foundation aims for selection advisory board, nomination, and laureate rosters that reflect the breadth of the award fields and the diversity of those working within them,” A. Sarah Hreha, executive director of the foundation, tells The Scientist over email. “All Gruber Selection Advisory Boards explicitly address diversity (gender, race, geography, area of focus) both when selecting prize recipients and when reviewing the nomination pool in advance of the selection meeting. We continue to revise processes and procedures to ensure fairness as we strive for a representative pool of candidates.”

While the eight Asian researchers who’ve won the Gruber Prize in Neuroscience since its inauguration in 2004 represent 28 percent of the winners in the award’s history, there has never been an Asian recipient of the Gruber Prize in Genetics, which started the same year.

Aside from Bement’s comments on behalf of the ASCB and the Gruber Foundation’s statement, none of the award-granting institutions mentioned in the Cell paper responded to The Scientist’s request for comment on the diversity of its award recipients as of this article’s publication.*

In his paper, Jan suggests that the discrepancy between Asian representation in biomedical research and among award winners is unlikely to be the result of explicit racism or prejudice. Rather, he cites unique challenges that Asian researchers face, including being confused for one another and having their efforts glossed over by other researchers, who might use language along the lines of “the Korean group” in their papers instead of listing scientists’ names when referencing past work.

“Making the field more aware of the bias is a big first step,” Jan tells The Scientist. “I think the progress made in reducing gender inequality in science is a good precedent. Once the scientific community is made to be more aware of the gender inequality, there has been significant progress. Not nearly enough, but trending in the right direction.”

*Editor's note (February 7): Emre Seli, chief science officer at March of Dimes, provided the following statement after this article's publication: “The Developmental Prize in Biology is an award that is given to a longtime career scientist with decades of experience so the pool of eligible candidates represent those who began practicing at least 25 years ago when there were fewer minority scientists in the field of medicine in general. At March of Dimes, our largest research grant goes to 5 Prematurity Research Centers, one of which is headed by an Asian American. We believe there is a serious need for better representation of minority researchers in the scientific, and particularly maternal fetal health field.”

Editor's note (February 8): The Genetics Society of America provided the following statement after this article's publication: “The Genetics Society of America recognizes the importance of continuous and active work toward building a more equitable field. One critical component of this work is reflecting on our processes and programs and making needed changes. In fact, the Board of Directors and Awards Committee are at present scrutinizing its processes with a particular focus on diversity in award selection, at all levels. We fully recognize that the process of further diversifying the pool of nominees and awardees can be improved. To this end, in 2021 the Board of Directors initiated an audit of our awards program to be completed this year. The major goal of this audit is to further improve our nomination processes to ensure that award recipients reflect the diversity of the genetics community."