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Study Topic Influences Funding Disparity for Black Scientists

A new analysis finds that black scientists tend to propose projects that have lower rates of funding from the National Institutes of Health than other fields.

Oct 10, 2019
Ashley Yeager

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Black scientists have been significantly less likely than white scientists to win grants from the National Institutes of Health, a gap first quantified in a 2011 study published in Science. One reason for this funding disparity might be that in grant applications black scientists tend to propose research on topics that are less likely to be funded than other fields are, researchers reported in Science Advances yesterday (October 9).

In the latest study, researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) analyzed roughly 157,000 funding applications from 2011 to 2015 and found that grant winners tended to study cellular and molecular science. Black scientists tended to focus on community- or population-scale clinical research. That difference in focus accounts for 20 percent of the funding disparity and explains why white scientists were awarded funding at a rate 1.7 times higher than black scientists were, the researchers report.

“It’s really a disciplinary bias. The current NIH system favors basic science with no regard for practical applications over research that applies what we already know to address the health crisis facing our country,” Stephen Thomas, a professor of health services at the University of Maryland in College Park who was not involved in the study, tells Science

Study coauthor George Santangelo, director of the NIH’s Office of Portfolio Analysis, agrees, telling STAT that scientists reviewing grant applications are typically trained to study basic mechanisms and probably favor research using similar methods. In the paper, Santangelo and the other authors suggest that NIH institute directors may want to think about spending more of their budgets in areas “that are underappreciated by reviewers but that align well with their strategic priorities.” 

Another way to reduce the disparity in funding is to mentor black scientists as they prepare their grant applications and encourage more black applicants to apply. “One really important takeaway is that the actual numbers [of black applicants] is very, very small. Out of the 160,000 applications, some 0.5% were from black scientists,” study coauthor Hannah Valantine, the NIH chief officer for scientific workforce diversity, tells STAT.

Study coauthor James Anderson, head of the NIH Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives, tells Science that the team’s analysis does help with understanding the disparity but “just looked at the numbers.” A logical next step would be to talk to the people who “made the decisions” about awarding grants. But, Anderson says, as of right now, there are no plans to have those conversations.

Ashley Yeager is an associate editor at The Scientist. Email her at ayeager@the-scientist.com.

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