Science: Study Identifies a Key Reason Black Scientists Are Less Likely to Receive NIH Funding
October 9, 2019

Science Magazine interviewed Dr. Stephen Thomas for an article on a recent study that suggests black scientists are less likely to receive funding from the National Institute of Health due to the topics black scientists study.

Racial disparities in NIH funding were first identified in a 2011 study led by economist Donna Ginther from the University of Kansas in Lawrence. The NIH has since sought to find concrete factors contributing to the funding gap, but not until this new study was topic choice considered to be an issue. 

The new study was led by NIH researchers and published in Science Advances. The research team examined over 150,000 project proposals submitted to NIH and identified six factors that influenced whether or not a proposal resulted in a grant. Of the six, three factors were found to contribute to the racial gap in funding. 

One of the factors is the applicant’s choice of topic, which researchers found accounted for 21percent of the overall funding disparity. Other factors, such as how frequently scientists send in proposals and which of the multiple NIH panels reviews the proposals, were found not to contribute to the funding gap.

But there is more work to be done. While the study identified where the disparity occurs, study co-author and NIH researcher James Anderson said, it doesn’t answer why reviewers are less interested in proposals on topics that disproportionately interest black scientists.

“I think the bias is more structural than racial,” Stephen Thomas, a professor of health services at the School of Public Health, told AAAS. “It’s really a disciplinary bias.”

Dr. Thomas added that the current NIH system favored proposals related to basic science with no regard for practical applications, rather than proposals related to tackling pressing community problems often submitted by black scientists. 

“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,” Dr. Thomas said to AAAS. “I’m not saying that doesn’t motivate white scientists, too. But I’ve seen it in many of my students.”

The issue is also cyclical: many reviewers are also NIH grantees, meaning that due to the lack of black scientists receiving proposals, future proposals are less likely to be seen by black reviewers who may hold different opinions on a proposal topic. 

The study’s authors recommend the NIH spend more of their budget on areas “that are underappreciated by reviewers but that align well with their strategic priorities.” The NIH said in response that further study is needed to determine if the topic choice is the underlying explanation for the funding gap before it can be rectified. 

Dr. Thomas is part of the NIH-funded National Research Mentoring Network, which works to support and boost minority scientists. He is also the director of the NIH-funded Center for Health Equity.

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Science Magazine | Study Identifies a Key Reason Black Scientists Are Less Likely to Receive NIH Funding