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Overcoming the R01 Race Gap

If you plan on winning tenure in a biomedical field at a research university, you had better plan on winning an R01 research grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) first; it's practically a necessary credential. But, according to findings released today in Science , black investigators -- a group composed of African-Americans and scientists from other nations who identify as black -- are about 10 percentage points less likely than their white peers to win these grants. The researchers who first noticed this aren't sure what's behind it -- it's up to NIH and its committees to figure that out and fix it -- but scientists already on the tenure track can't wait that long. Whatever odds they face, they need to find a way to succeed, now. Scientists we talked to who have earned R01s -- including several African-American scientists -- say that's possible.

"I must say, race never comes up in discussion. In my experience, most of the time, you do not know the nationality and oftentimes you don't know the gender, of the person writing the grant. Race is never an issue. ... We only grade the science." -- Floyd Wormley Jr.

Finding good mentors who are willing to share grant-writing wisdom is essential for learning how to win grants, says James Jackson, a professor of psychology, health behavior, and health education at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. "No one is born with the understanding and capacity to be able to get grants," he says. "That is something that you just have to learn. And the best way to learn that is by actually working with people who know how to do it, have done it in the past, and indeed can impart that knowledge in a hands-on way."

In their study, Ginther et al., combined African-American (55%) and non-American black scientists (45%), comparing their success rate with the whole cohort of R01 applicants. However, they also broke out African-American U.S. citizens, comparing them with a group that includes U.S. citizens of all ethnicities, and determined that the success-rate disparity was the same -- 13% in the raw data and 10% after correcting for factors such as institution type -- as for the group that included black foreign nationals. For this reason, we use "black" and "African-American" interchangeably in this article.

Jackson, who's received a variety of grants from NIH since 1977 and currently holds an R01 for studying health disparities in the progression of type 2 diabetes, says it's not just a matter of seeing to the nuts and bolts of designing a good proposal -- though that's important too. It's also about developing the right professional connections. "Where you are, who you were trained by, who you work with, and so on are vital variables that people take into consideration when making decisions about whether to award grants or not," he says.

Unfortunately, identifying mentors can be difficult for young black scientists, says Chester Brown, a pediatric geneticist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. "There just aren't as many faculty that look like us," he says. Adding to that challenge is the fact that many of the young black scientists who have become postdocs and professors have done it by being mentally tough, which can make them less likely to seek help when they need it, Brown says. "Unfortunately, many people think asking for help is a sign of weakness. I've seen that pattern in a lot of black students."

Compounding the problem is that minority scientists are often compelled -- by their own conscience, surely, but also by colleagues and administrators -- to be mentors for other minority undergraduate and graduate students, Jackson says. That's an extra time burden that their majority peers don't have to carry, he says, and it often prevents minority scientists from collecting the data they need to prepare to submit an R01 grant. "You can get hired one day and the next you're the assistant to the president for minority recruiting," he says. "That might be fine in terms of a financial inducement, but that's certainly not the way to get a scientific career launched. This has happened to too many promising young scholars. It's an absolute killer to people's careers."

Chester Brown (CREDIT: Courtesy of Baylor College of Medicine)

So what's a young black scholar to do? Learn to say "no" to at least some of the time-consuming commitments you're asked to take on, Brown and Jackson say. Leave the undergraduate and graduate student mentoring -- or some of it at least -- to established senior faculty members who can afford to spend time away from their labs.

Floyd Wormley Jr., a microbiologist at the University of Texas, San Antonio, serves as a standing member on NIH's AIDS-associated Opportunistic Infections and Cancer study section, which reviews grant proposals on that topic, scores them, and forwards the best ones to the appropriate NIH institutes for the final funding decision. He says that young black investigators should mark themselves early as committed, dependable scientists in the eyes of reviewers, and the best way to do that is to publish. "By publishing in grad school, you're building up a record that establishes yourself as a bright young scientist," he says. "If you apply for an R01 and you don't have a record of publication, it's going to affect how the reviewer views you as an investigator. ... It's like how it'd be difficult to take a person seriously who says they want to run in the Olympics when they've never run a race before in their life."

Floyd Wormley Jr. (CREDIT: Mark McClendon)

Serving on ad hoc study sections can greatly help young scientists better understand what is and isn't an R01-worthy grant, Wormley says. Before he got his own R01, he served on an ad hoc review panel assembled by the American Heart Association to review grants related to microbiology and immunology. "It helps tremendously reading other grants, seeing the good ones and the not-so-good ones, seeing how the process works, knowing how to format your grants and what to include in them," he says. "If you're offered the opportunity to serve on an ad hoc study section, do it."

Don't wait to be asked either, Wormley says. If you know someone who serves on an NIH study section or another review panel, tell them you're interested. Often, those people can recommend you.

Does race ever play an explicit or implicit factor in determining how individual grants are scored in such sections? Wormley says no. "I must say, race never comes up in discussion," he says. "In my experience, most of the time, you do not know the nationality, and oftentimes you don't know the gender, of the person writing the grant. Race is never an issue. ... We only grade the science."

Brown says he can sometimes identify the race of a grant's proposer. But "it never trumps the science," he says. If anything, he thinks most study section members might give a slight benefit to a grant proposal they knew came from a minority scientist. "If there was an application from a minority scientist that was on the line, would that affect my decision?" Brown says. "I don't know. It honestly might."

Michael Price is a staff writer for Science Careers.