NSF Grant Funding Is Racially Biased, Study Finds

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A review of more than two decades of data finds racial disparities in the success rate of National Science Foundation grant proposals.

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Andy Carstens

Andy Carstens is a current contributor and past intern at The Scientist. He has a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a master’s in science writing from Johns Hopkins University. Andy’s work has also appeared in Audubon, Slate, Them, and Aidsmap.

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US National Science Foundation data collected between 1996 and 2019 show that white principal investigators were more likely to receive grant funding than their nonwhite colleagues, suggesting that “Systemic racism manifests at the NSF as higher funding rates for proposals by White PIs than those by non-White PIs,” a preprint posted this month argues. 

NSF, which received a copy of the analysis, which has not been peer reviewed, does not dispute its conclusions, reports Science. The agency’s director, Sethuraman Panchanathan, “shares these concerns [about] systemic racial disparities in funding at NSF and other federal agencies,” an NSF spokesperson tells the outlet, adding that while the agency is proud of its programs aimed at improving equity and inclusion, “there is still much [work] to do.”

Study coauthor Christine Yifeng Chen, a geochemist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, tells Science that she and her colleagues decided to investigate trends in NSF funding after hearing complaints of inequality from senior nonwhite scientists. “I think it’s significant that this project was initiated by early-career scientists,” Chen tells Science. “It speaks to the prevailing culture in academia that allows the status quo to be perpetuated. We felt that if we didn’t do the analysis, nobody else would.”

During the years analyzed, the proportion of grant proposals awarded—known as the funding rate—varied between 22 percent and 34 percent depending on annual NSF budgets and how many applications were submitted, the authors write. When comparing different racial and ethnic groups between 1999 and 2019, the preprint authors found that the funding rates for white scientists were more than 8 percent above the average, while the funding rates for scientists who were Black, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islanders, or Asian fell below the average by about 8 percent, 11 percent, and 21 percent, respectively. Latino scientists’ proposals were successful more often than the average, but in 2019, their funding rate was 2 percent below that of white scientists, reports Science.

The findings are similar to those of a 2011 analysis of racial disparities in National Institutes of Health grant recipients, which identified a difference in success rate between white and Black scientists of up to 13 percent. While follow-up studies have shown a decrease in NIH’s funding gaps, they have not been eliminated, reports Science.

See “Q&A: A Randomized Approach to Awarding Grants

The authors of the new analysis write that while many people believe inequalities such as these will lessen over time, that outcome is not inevitable, and “to manifest change, NSF must lead in eliminating racial funding disparities in science.”