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

One Reply to “Biased grant funding in science have career implications for minority scientists”

  1. Great post. I completely agree with you. It is a cumulative problem as you mentioned. Black and minority faculty do not get good advisors in the first place and that is where the gap starts and only a few of them overcome this gap in their career. The unfair white advantage is a reality and it is going to be a while before that gap narrows at least in the advanced research and funding opportunities.

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