Blacks far less likely than whites to land NIH grants

Agency director responds, promises changes are afoot

Among minority scientists applying for National Institutes of Health research grants, blacks alone face a substantially lower likelihood of being successful than whites, a new study finds. This investigation, which was prompted by the research agency itself, will catalyze further probes and a host of changes, promises NIH director Francis Collins.

The findings emerge from a study published online Aug. 18 in Science. Donna Ginther of the University of Kansas in Lawrence and her colleagues probed the success rates of Ph.D. investigators working at U.S. institutions in winning NIH grants between 2002 and 2006. Over that time, more than 40,000 individuals submitted a total of 83,188 applications. Each hoped for the opportunity to dip deeply from a pool of funds averaging about $1.4 billion annually.

Researchers who described themselves as Hispanic had grant success rates comparable to whites. Initially, Asians appeared to have a 4 percentage-point lower success rate than whites. But when Ginther’s group reanalyzed the data, restricting the applicants to U.S. citizens, the Asian disadvantage vanished. (Says Collins, this suggests that applicants who didn’t fare well here might have been non-native English speakers with a language barrier to articulating their ideas cogently.)

But nothing erased the black disadvantage, Ginther’s team found.

“These data are deeply troubling,” Collins says. “Even after controlling for all of the factors that were considered to be important for predicting success” — like education and NIH training, the labs in which they ended up working, the number of research papers they’ve authored — “black applicants were 10 percentage points less likely than white applicants to receive research grants.”

Numerically, he told reporters, that translates to about 27 percent of white researcher’s grant applications winning funding, compared to only about 17 percent of those submitted by blacks.

“It is certainly a situation that we all agree is unacceptable and requires intervention,” Collins says.

On the drawing board
He and Lawrence Tabak, the principal deputy director of NIH, broadly outline an action plan to deal with the problem in a report that also appears online in Science. Details, however, await the findings of a pair of new advisory groups that Collins created.

Tabak co-chairs one of these: a diversity in biomedical research working group. He reports that in its initial teleconference, the group discussed how to probe obstacles to the recruitment of first-rate applications from minority scientists and to ensure that those proposing the best science have an equally high chance of landing NIH funds.

“This is a committee that is not designed to produce a glossy report that will sit on shelves,” Tabak says, but rather to provide Collins “tangible action items” by next June.

One issue NIH plans to take on immediately: how to adequately “blind” grant reviewers to applicants so that any chance of bias is minimized — without also eliminating important details that might reflect the quality of a scientist’s research or resources.

NIH already strips off a researcher’s stated race or ethnicity from a grant proposal before reviewers judge its merit. However, names and the background of the principal investigator remain — which in some instances may offer clues. Such as a first name like Kwame or L’Shaniqua, or perhaps reference to an applicant having attended a historically black college.

In an experiment set to begin soon, Collins promised to investigate whether further blinding is needed. His agency will simultaneously subject some collections of grant applications to two review panels, then compare their results. One panel will receive applications that contain the same information as in the past; the other will receive proposals from which all names and identifying characteristics have been removed.

Boosting help, enriching opportunities
While the magnitude of the black disadvantage might have surprised NIH, the agency has long known that blacks play a bit role in biomedical research. They constitute 10.2 percent of the U.S. population, Collins notes, yet only 1.2 percent of researchers leading projects financed by NIH (through investigator-led — or RO1 — grants).

The newly quantified disadvantage highlighted by Ginther’s team might reflect weaker training of black researchers on how to craft a winning application, less access to mentoring on research design, some subtle bias on the part of grant-review committees — or a combination of all these. Collins vows his new advisory groups will look into each.

For instance, not all grant applications are scored for quality. Those that reviewers feel will fall within the lower half are just rejected.

Ginther’s group now reports that among grant proposals that were scored highly, race and ethnicity had no impact on funding success. This suggests that blacks may face some disadvantage in drafting a compelling proposal.

Collins now promises NIH will soon offer extra assistance to inexperienced grant applicants and be “supporting innovative approaches to encourage more extensive and effective local mentoring of junior faculty” by the academic institutions at which they work. He adds that his new advisory groups will also consider how NIH might encourage researchers who weren’t successful the first time around to reapply for a grant (since most successful applicants have to try a few times before they land a grant — and blacks are less likely to do that).

Sitting in on grant deliberations should help young faculty of all ethnic backgrounds get a better taste of how research proposals are judged and what’s most likely to wow their peers. Scientists recruited to review grants, however, tend to be older, more experienced individuals. Collins aims to change this by actively recruiting “promising junior faculty” to become reviewers: “We aim to have 50 of these early career reviewers assigned to each of NIH’s three rounds of grant reviews in the 2012 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.”

At a briefing for reporters, Tabak noted that NIH has already begun sharing what it’s learned with officials at the National Science Foundation, Department of Defense, Energy Department and Education Department. From those discussions, he says, it sounds like these agencies are also open to investigating whether racial or ethnic disparities may exist among applicants for their grants.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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