Biased grant funding in science have career implications for minority scientists

The key to success in an academic career once hired is to win grant funding for your research. If you fail to win grant funding you will be unable to build your research program into a functioning lab that conducts research, trains graduate students, and publishes research results. These three critical functions are the basis of most institution promotion and tenure. Many universities place an increased emphasis on winning prestigious national grants. In biological sciences the most prestigious grants are awarded by the National institutes of Health (NIH).

It has been generally known that minority and women researchers have a lower success rate at getting grants than their white counterparts. In 2011 the NIH sponsored an in depth analysis of their data regarding granting records (Ginther, et al., 2011). The results confirmed that white scientists accumulate advantages throughout the granting process leading to higher success rates. It also found that black scientists in particular were less likely to receive funding from the NIH than other minorities in competition with white scientists with similar backgrounds. This gap was as large as 10 percentage points and was named the Ginther gap. After this publication the NIH has invested in trying to minimize the Ginther gap. In 2014, the NIH implemented a list of 13 recommendations to work on narrowing the gap in funding. While their efforts have led to the elimination of a racial funding gap for smaller awards the top tier funding that is essential for career success has only seen a narrowing of the racial funding gap (National Institutes of Health, 2019). In addition to the work reported by the NIH recent studies have come out in the past 2 years explaining reasons behind the Ginther gap.

The original publication about the Ginther gap posed some potential reasons for the gap in funding of black applicants. Black proposals may not be as strong a their white counterparts due to their greater likelihood of having mentors and training opportunities (Ginther et al., 2011). It is also possible that there are reviewers that may infer the race of the applicant and allow that to affect their assessment of the proposal either through malicious intent or implicit bias (Ginther et al., 2011). In 2018, a study on a similar set of grant data from the NIH reported a 7% gap and associated it to the biosketch of the applicant (Ginther et al., 2018). The biosketch is short CV/resume like document that highlights contributions to science. The component of the biosketch that was found to be the most detrimental is the publication history. The study found that the papers listed were in less prestigious journals and on average they listed fewer publications than their white contemporaries (Ginther et al., 2018). Considering that black applicants are applying for grants to fund research for future publications and that they are penalized for having lower numbers of publications it seems like the NIH is creating and perpetuating a system that traps black scientists and prevents them from succeeding in academia. Earlier this month a study was published explaining some of the remaining Ginther gap. This new study again using NIH grant data, found that topic choice was the second largest contributor to the gap, behind previous publications (Hoppe et al., 2019). The authors attribute the negative impact of topic choice to have more to do with NIH funding priorities over reviewer bias. The NIH promotes and funds a lot of basic science research and black scientists tend to propose more applied research (Hope et al., 2019). One article discussing the Hoppe et al., publication quoted Stephen Thomas at University of Maryland College Park saying

“As an African American who came up through the academic ranks and has the scars to prove it, I can understand why someone growing up among people who have been systematically discriminated against may be motivated to become a scientist because of a desire to address those problems… I’m not saying that doesn’t motivate white scientists, too. But I’ve seen it in many of my students (Mervis, 2019).”

I think this quote is a powerful example of a why that the current granting system is rigged against minority scientist success. Institutions and granting agencies have been working on minimizing the Ginther gap for funding of black scientists but it seems to me that the system will need to be structurally changed if the gap is to be completely eliminated because there are too many variables outside of the purview of a grant application that affects funding success. Black scientists are not the only minority group experiencing grant funding disparities as well but these are the most well researched. I strongly encourage everyone to take a moment to learn more about grant funding disparities and think about just how important grant funding is in the current academic evaluation system.

-SE

Ginther, D. K., Schaffer, W. T., Schnell, J., Masimore, B., Liu, F., Haak, L. L., & Kington, R. (2011). Race, ethnicity, and NIH research awards. Science, 333(6045), 1015-1019.

Ginther, D. K., Basner, J., Jensen, U., Schnell, J., Kington, R., & Schaffer, W. T. (2018). Publications as predictors of racial and ethnic differences in NIH research awards. PloS one, 13(11), e0205929.

Hoppe, T. A., Litovitz, A., Willis, K. A., Meseroll, R. A., Perkins, M. J., Hutchins, B. I., … & Santangelo, G. M. (2019). Topic choice contributes to the lower rate of NIH awards to African-American/black scientists. Science Advances, 5(10), eaaw7238.

Mervis, J. October 2019. Study identifies a key reason black scientists are less likely to receive NIH funding. Science Magazine. Retrieved on October 16th 2019 from https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/10/study-identifies-key-reason-black-scientists-are-less-likely-receive-nih-funding

National Institutes of Health. June 2019. Racial Disparities in NIH funding. Retrieved on October 16th 2019 from https://diversity.nih.gov/building-evidence/racial-disparities-nih-funding

Intersectionality

My introductions to Intersectionality

I first learned about intersectionality while I was training to be a resident assistant at Michigan State University. We were talking about identities and assumptions and the leader of our training introduced the term. As soon as I heard it I felt it was the perfect way to think about identities. It reminds you that you are composed of multiple identities and that others are too. I also feel that the term reminds you that you can find connection with other people who may seem to be extremely different from you. I have moved away from residential life but I still think about intersectionality frequently.

Mainly I think about intersectionality with regard to its connection to life experiences. As a graduate teaching scholar I spend a lot of time reading about pedagogy and theories related to learning. I feel that good teaching requires the instructor to embrace intersectionality in their classroom. The revelation came to life for me when I learned about Paulo Freire’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Critical Pedagogy. Critical pedagogy is a style of teaching that connects classroom material with student’s past life experiences (read more here). Most recommended teaching techniques in critical pedagogy revolve around discussion where students are asked to connect their own life experiences to the classroom. This teaching style makes the most sense for me because it is how I learn. I need to find a connection to the material- either to my own interests or with respect to something I can apply in the real world. For example the semester I realized I loved metabolism was when I was taking courses in biochemistry, nutrition, and toxicology. It was a really hard semester but half way through I had a light bulb moment where I realized the material I was learning about in each class was just a variation of what I learned in the others. I saw the relationship between the disciplines under the larger umbrella of studying metabolism.

Applying intersection in the future

With regards to intersectionality in the traditional sense- “the complex cumulative manner in which the effects of different forms of discrimination combine, overlap or intersect” (Merriam-Webster, 2019), I don’t do a lot with that currently. I would like to though. Intersectionality is not a topic that gets brought up much in the world of science. It has a lot of potential too though- there is a lot of discrimination in the scientific world, both in the past and in the present:

Race- and gender-based bias persists in US science

(More) Bias in Science Hiring

Gender discrimination holding women back in veterinary practice

I think if we integrated more training in issues surround diversity and inclusion- such as intersectionality- to science graduate programs and professional programs (medical, veterinary, pharmacy, etc.) we would be able to cut down on discrimination present in science today.

-SE

Intersectionality. 2019. In Merriam-Webster.com Retrieved October 7, 2019, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/intersectionality

Veterinarian Suicide- How we prepare pre-vet students in Animal Science

Veterinarian suicide has been in the news recently as the tragedy it rightfully is (Link); however, this is not a new problem. In 2018 the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) released a press release following a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) research article which found that suicide among veterinarians was higher than the general population during a time frame of 1979 to 2015 (Link)(American Veterinary Medical Association, 2018). There are many reasons being blamed for the higher rate of suicide- crippling debt, limited job prospects, difficult job tasks, unhappy customers, etc. But the fact remains that veterinarians are killing themselves at an alarming rate- one suicide is already too many regardless of the population.

This issue has hit close to home to me as many friends and my sister are in the veterinary medical profession, but also because 85 % of the incoming freshman in 2018 to the Animal and Poultry Science department at Virginia Tech declared their intended interest was pre-veterinary medicine (VT APSC, 2019). That means in an average class size of 200, there are 170 students that intend to enter the veterinary medicine field- this is normal in animal science departments across the country. As an educator and mentor to these students this terrifies me, we are training students to enter a career field that may drive them to suicide.

There are programs for veterinarians and vet students to be exposed to well being practices and companies that employee veterinarians have made financial commitments to teach coping skills with the goal to reduce suicide (American Veterinary Medical Association, n.d.). I wonder if the Animal Science discipline, of which veterinary medicine is one small part, has a responsibility to dealing with this crisis. Currently, before vet school little discussion about suicide is provided to students. Do Animal Science faculty members have a responsibility to talk with pre-vet students about suicide? Should undergraduate faculty members who served as mentors to these students have a responsibility to stay connected to these now veterinarians and continue mentoring? The crisis of veterinarian suicide is heartbreaking and horrible, I think that animal science departments should be considering their role in mitigating veterinarian suicide.

References:

American Veterinary Medical Association. 2018, December 21.  AVMA combating suicide amongst veterinary professionals [press release]. Retrieved from https://www.avma.org/News/PressRoom/Pages/AVMA-combating-suicide-amongst-veterinary-professionals.aspx

American Veterinary Medical Association. n.d. Wellbeing and Peer Assistance. Retrieved from https://www.avma.org/ProfessionalDevelopment/PeerAndWellness/Pages/default.aspx

Virginia Tech department of Animal and Poultry Sciences. 2019. Animal and Poultry Sciences 2019 Departmental Review. Blacksburg, VA: College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.