Black Researchers Get Fewer Grants

Underlying Racial Bias In Grant Review

Education & Career, Featured

If you glance around university corridors or scientific meetings, it’s obvious that African-Americans are uncommon in the world of science. A study in Science magazine now finds that the black scientists who do start careers in medical research are at a big disadvantage when it comes to funding.

People have been trying to do something about racial disparities in the world of science for several decades. William Lawson, chairman of the psychiatry department at Howard University in Washington, D.C., has thought a lot about how to increase the number of black research psychiatrists. He says for one thing, they’re more likely to study issues important to that group.

A new study finds that when applying for scientific research grants from the National Institutes of Health, white researchers succeeded 25 percent of the time, while blacks about 15 percent of the time. Above, the Mark O. Hatfield Clinical Research Center at the NIH Campus in Bethesda, Md.

“First of all, just becoming a scientist is, for many of them, a challenging part of their lives as well, because all along the line, there are many barriers towards reaching that level,” he says.

He says African-Americans who do get jobs in academia tend to focus on teaching and clinical practice, which they see as serving their communities, instead of research. And blacks often come into science without all the personal connections that others may have.

“The research enterprise, like in a business or anything else, it helps to know the folks who have been successful and involved,” Lawson says.

Once black scientists get academic jobs, their challenges don’t end. That’s where the latest study comes in.

The Grant Gap

Raynard Kington, president of Grinnell College, wondered whether black scientists got as much grant support from the National Institutes of Health as do other scientists. He’s a former deputy director of the NIH. Kington and his colleagues took into account factors like the nature of the institutions where black scientists work, their training and their history of landing research grants.

“My personal expectation was that we would be able to explain lots of the differences that we saw. I thought we’d see differences, and that we’d be able to explain by factors like that. And that turned out not to be the case,” Kington says.

The grant gap was quite substantial. Getting a grant is never easy, but in round numbers, white researchers succeeded about 25 percent of the time, and blacks succeeded about 15 percent of the time. An obvious question is whether this is the result of overt racism.

“We can’t rule it out, but that’s not what we think is happening,” Kington says. “I think the more compelling case is that it is unconscious in various ways.”

The review teams who decide who should get scarce research dollars may be picking up subtle clues from the applications, Kington suggests.

“Although race is not identified in applications, it remains fairly easy, I would argue, to infer race for many applicants,” he says.

And there’s lots of research that shows people in the general public have subtle biases against people with, for example, black-sounding names.

“Scientists are human; scientists have the biases of society in many ways, in spite of their scientific training,” he says.

Addressing The Discrepancy

So he says it’s worth investigating whether that’s playing a role in the committees that hand out grants. Kington says it’s a much broader issue than one of racial discrimination. It could mean that grants aren’t being awarded on pure merit.

“If indeed we are biased in the way that we review some of our applications, that means that the American people’s money may not be going to the strongest scientific ideas,” he says.

The new research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, which has been trying to address these discrepancies. Francis Collins, the NIH director, was not happy to hear the results.

“That’s a huge discrepancy, and something that we are deeply troubled about and are determined to do something about,” Collins says.

One idea is to recruit more up-and-coming black scientists to serve on the committees that actually evaluate the grant applications.

“It’s clear that that experience, where you get a chance to see other applications and how they fare in the peer-review process, is very helpful when one sits down to write one’s own grant,” he says.

Collins is also interested in expanding mentoring programs, though Kington, a black scientist, says that’s a two-edged sword.

“Every institution I’ve been at, I would regularly get requests from minority students to mentor them. And almost always at a rate substantially higher than my peers. Some people refer to that as the black tax,” Kington says.

So the issues here appear to be deep, without easy answers.

Source: NPR


One Comment on "Black Researchers Get Fewer Grants"

  1. Alaor Apr 20, 2012 · 8:52 pm

    And so we reach an impasse. We both have facts and data to back up our eaugmrnts. We both seem to be well read, able to form cohesive and compelling eaugmrnts. It simply boils down to this: who do you believe? Neither of us are doctors or professors in the field of climate, so we have to base our decision on the cases presented by others. And with such division in the debate, how do you choose?As with any debate, unless you are in possession of hard data you have personally captured and analysed, choosing a side comes down to gut feeling. You read. You review. You consider. You decide. Our decisions are a product of our belief systems. What do we think of others? What do we think of ourselves? What do we want to believe?I choose to believe that humans have a massive effect on the environment in which they live. I base this belief on my own study (back in the old Uni days!) and from the many books and reports I have read. We have decimated the earth and the ocean. Is it so unreasonable to expect we have done the same to the climate? I believe not.I believe that, as with all organised groups, some proponents have a personal agenda. However, I believe the majority of people have a strong moral compass. I think that, given a choice, most people would do what is right. Not all, but most. I believe that the signatories of the Business Round Table here in Australia (BP, IAG, Origin Energy, Swiss Re, Visy and Westpac) are motivated by what is right, what is profitable, and what is sustainable. Not all people in power are corrupt. Not all people with money have cheated. Some yes, but not all.This may seem like a rose tinted view of the world. But isn’t that the best view? Life is too short to be cynical, too short to think the worst of people rather than the best. If Nations united around a common goal’ reeks a bit of socialist dogma then long live socialist dogma! Only a global effort will eradicate poverty in our lifetime. Only a global effort will find solutions to epidemics in the poorer countries of the world. And only a global effort will solve the problem of climate change, man-made or not.The cost of combating man-made global warming was estimated by The Stern Report as 1% of GDP. The contribution countries should make to development goals outlined in the United Nations Millennium Declaration is 0.7% of GDP. These are extremely small amounts of money.But we arrive back at the beginning again. We both have facts and data, and we both represent opposite sides of the argument. So what next?Even if we cannot stop the warming. Even if we face the terrible consequences of dangerous climate change. And even if we don’t. I believe the idea that mankind can unite in its quest to solve a global problem is a noble one. It brings us together. It makes the world a smaller place. And if that understanding, and the idea that the world is my neighbour, permeates society then I believe it will bring a slow end to fighting, to poverty, to terrorism.Evidence aside, the cost is negligible but the benefits to the human race are hard to ignore. The world is an abundant place. There is more than enough for everyone. And in a country like Australia we have no excuse for not giving considerable sums of our own money to help those who have not been as fortunate as ourselves. And to those who will live on this earth after we have gone.When man landed on the moon the world stopped. Literally. The global audiences attracted by Live8, and the Olympics, is evidence of our inbuilt desire join together to create something bigger than ourselves.If I indulge you one last time, and make the assumption that the cases for and against AGW are 50/50, I would always choose the side that unites the world in hope, not the one that divides it in the pursuit of money.I have met Tim Flannery. He doesn’t want increase to size and scope of government. He just wants to do what he believes is ethically right. Good for him.There is much evidence that a carbon emissions trading scheme works, which is different from a carbon tax. (Stictly speaking, a tax is paid to the government.) In Australia a tax would need to be around the $50 a tonne mark to stimulate investment in renewables. Renewable energy creates more jobs than fossil fuels, and also decentralises generation which is great for consumers.The carbon tax debate is a complex one, but the goal is simple. If the tax does not significantly reduce CO2 emmissions then it is pointless. I’ll agree with you on that!

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