Laboratory at the Morehouse School of Medicine

A core laboratory at the Morehouse School of Medicine, a historically black institution in Atlanta.

Morehouse School of Medicine

In effort to understand continuing racial disparities, NIH to test for bias in study sections

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, has decided to find out whether its fabled grantsmaking process discriminates against African-American scientists.

Armed with new data showing black applicants suffer a 35% lower chance of having a grant proposal funded than their white counterparts, NIH officials are gearing up to test whether reviewers in its study sections give lower scores to proposals from African-American applicants. They say it’s one of several possible explanations for a disparity in success rates first documented in a 2011 report by a team led by economist Donna Ginther of the University of Kansas, Lawrence. The so-called Ginther report also noted that black researchers are more likely to have their applications for an R01 grant—the bread-and-butter NIH award that sustains academic labs—thrown out without any discussion by study sections and that black scientists are less likely to resubmit a revised proposal for a second review.

NIH is also faced with the problem of low participation rates by minority scientists. Only 1.5% of its R01 applications come from African-American scientists. (The average applicant submits three applications, although whites submit at a higher rate than blacks.)

The bias study would draw from a pool of recently rejected grant applications that have been anonymized to remove any hint of the applicant’s race, home institution, and training. Reviewers would be asked to score them on a one-to-nine scale using NIH’s normal rating system. Richard Nakamura, head of the Center for Scientific Review in Bethesda, which manages the NIH grantsmaking apparatus, said he hopes to award a contract later this year for an outside firm to conduct the analysis.

The exercise is one of three “experimental interventions” being launched in the coming months as NIH continues to wrestle with the implications of the Ginther report. In 2014, in the first round of what NIH Director Francis Collins touted as a 10-year, $500 million initiative to increase the  diversity of the scientific workforce, NIH gave out 5-year, $25 million awards to 10 institutions that enroll large numbers of minority students and created a national research mentoring network.

A second intervention starting later this year will tap that fledgling mentoring network to tutor two dozen minority scientists whose R01 applications were recently rejected. The goal of the intervention, which will last several months, is to prepare the scientists to have greater success on their next application. A third intervention will educate minority scientists on the importance of resubmitting a rejected proposal, because resubmitted proposals are three times more likely to be funded than a de novo application from a researcher who has never been funded by NIH.

NIH officials recently updated the Ginther study, which examined a 2000–2006 cohort of applicants, and found that the racial disparity persists. The 35% lower chance of being funded comes from tracking the success rates of 1054 matched pairs of white and black applicants from 2008 to 2014. Black applicants continue to do less well at each stage of the process.

Ironically, because the pool of black applicants is so small, it wouldn’t take much to eliminate the disparity: Only 23 more R01 applications from black researchers would need to be funded each year to bring them to parity. But that’s not good enough, says Hannah Valantine, NIH chief officer for scientific workforce diversity, who presented the new data today to the director’s advisory council.

“We want to narrow the gap in a sustained way,” Valantine said. She cited other factors believed to depress the number of applications by black scientists that NIH hopes to address in partnership with universities, including fewer institutional resources or a heavier teaching load.

One issue that hung in the air was whether any of the disparity was self-inflicted. Specifically, council members and NIH officials pondered the tendency of African-American researchers to favor certain research areas, such as health disparities, women’s health, or hypertension and diabetes among minority populations, and wondered whether study sections might view the research questions in those areas as less compelling. Valantine called it a propensity “to work on issues that resonate with their core values.” At the same time, she said the data show minorities also do less well in competition with their white peers in those fields.

Collins offered another possibility. “I’ve heard stories that they might have been mentored to go into those areas as a better way to win funding,” he said. “The question is, to what extent is it their intrinsic interest in a topic, and to what extent have they been encouraged to go in that direction?”

Referring to the tiny pool of minority applicants, one council member asserted that many African-American undergraduates who do well in science choose medicine over research when contemplating their future because they aren’t familiar with academic research as a possible career. Valantine said the data show that applications submitted by African-Americans are evenly divided between those who have M.D.s and those with a Ph.D. But she acknowledged that understanding “the science of diversity” is a huge challenge for her office and for NIH. “It’s probably more complex than any other thing that we do,” she said.