NIH Biased Against Blacks?

A new study reveals that African American researchers are 10 percent less likely to receive funding from the federal agency than their white peers.

Aug 22, 2011
Bob Grant

IMAGE COURTESY OF THE NIH

African American biomedical researchers applying for funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are less likely to be funded than white scientists, according to a study published last week in Science. The numbers are pretty striking, with the gap in success rates between black and white applicants amounting to 10 percent, even after accounting for factors like publication record, previous research awards, education, country of origin, training, and employer characteristics.

The study's authors, which included former NIH Deputy Director and African American scientist Raynard Kington, analyzed more than 83,000 applications for R01 grants submitted by white, black, Asian, and Hispanic researchers from 2000-2006 and found that 29 percent of the proposals submitted by white applicants were funded, compared to only 16 percent of applications from black scientists. In total, only 185 of the nearly 23,400 grants funded during that period were from black Ph.D. scientists—a mere 1 percent—though African Americans make up only 1.4 percent of R01 submissions.

The disturbing trend has the NIH's full attention. "The situation is not acceptable," NIH Director Francis Collins, told Nature. "It indicates that we have not only failed to recruit the best and brightest minds from all the groups that we need but, for those that have come, there is inequity."

The bias appears to occur in the NIH's initial review process, with many of the applications from African Americans failing at this stage. If applications made it through early review, they were equally likely to gain funding, regardless of their authors' races.

In an opinion piece that appeared in the same issue of Science written in response to the study, Collins, along with NIH Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak, outline steps the agency—which commissioned the report in the first place—will take to address the apparent racial inequality in grant awards. They include offering more grant writing assistance to minority applicants, increasing the number of early-career reviewers from ethnic minorities and forming advisory groups to recommend additional steps needed to close the gap. "Now we know, and now we have a chance to do something about it," Collins told Science. "The leadership here is absolutely committed to making that happen."