Black applicants for a prestigious research fellowship program at the National Institutes of Health receive significantly lower sponsorship than their white counterparts. The NIH has scrutinized this funding gap since a 2011 report revealed the scale of the problem and looked for underlying mechanisms that could be used as opportunities for corrective action.
The latest report from NIH, described in a study published this month. access journal Science Advances, reveals that part of the gap is due to differences in the topics proposed by scientists and to reviewers' assessment of these issues.
The study on grant applications submitted between 2011 and 2015 suggests that African-American scientists are more likely to conduct research on disease prevention in topics such as community-based research versus more microscopic research on cellular mechanisms or the fundamentals of genetics. These population issues are not easily financed.
And that's a problem with the system, which some external researchers point out – not with the choice of research topic.
"I think the areas of research It's important that there seem to be fewer resources available," says David Asai, senior director of science education at Howard Hughes Medical Institute and advocate of diversity in STEM, who is not on the NIH analysis was involved. "This study could lead the community to think about the underlying prejudices we might have in deciding which types of research deserve more attention."
The NIH study examined funding rates in the form of successful applications for R01 grants designed to support "health-related research and development based on the NIH mission".
Despite the efforts of the NIH to diversify the pool of scientists conducting medical research, white applicants for these grants continue to receive almost twice as many resources as black applicants – 17.7% of white applicants were in fiscal 2011 -2015, compared with 10.7% of black applicants.
The researchers analyzed keywords in the subject areas of 157,549 grant applications and concluded that some subject areas were nearly four times more likely to receive funding.
"Less-favored areas [topics] include the study of groups of people", says dr. James Anderson, Deputy Director of Program Coordination, Planning and Strategic Initiatives at the NIH and one of the authors of the paper.
"These topics are described in terms such as socioeconomic status, physical activity, pregnancy," says Anderson. "Those who do the best really do deal with molecular mechanisms – cells or parts of cells – words like cilium, DNA polymerase, chimera, ribosome – it's not absolute, but it's really a remarkable distinction." Success rates by topic ranged between 29% and 7.5%.
The researchers used self-reported demographic data in an optional part of the application – one that was not visible to the grantee – to identify each applicant's race. They found that more than one-third of the applications from scientists were linked to only eight of the 150 theme clusters.
Six of these eight topics concerned "communities or health differences, etc.," Anderson said Including topics that did not fare as well in the funding process.
This difference in subject preference may account for 20% of the total funding gap for black applicants according to the study, taking into account other variables such as the applicant's academic and professional experience and achievements. Dr. Hannah Valantine, director of the NIH's Diversity Office and another author of the paper, says black researchers may be more interested in specific topics at the population level because "connecting to one's own community and one's own The difference that drives people into science is to create a better environment for their community. "
" It is critically important that African American scientists can advance their careers and stay in science, not only for their own success, but also to promote the diversity of science biomedical workforce, "says Valantine We already know that with a diverse scientific enterprise we find more creative solutions to the problems we want to solve. "
This request comes from Stephani Page, Postdoctoral Fellow in Biophysics at Duke University Molecular, good at Physiological Institute and Initiator of the Twitter hashtag #BLACKandSTEM even though her subject is the statistically more successful end of the scholarship spectrum.
"For me personally," says Page: "The science that really excites me and makes me tingle , tends to be a more quantitative, mechanistic science. But I also have the experience of growing up as a black woman in this skin and being a mother. So when I think about what my career should look like, it's hard for me to break away from my career, which means something to my community.
Page says she is losing hope to achieve the desired effect on the community – helping black sci's enthes feel confirmed – while working in their current area. "I do not want to be a scientist who does not One of the causes of inequality documented by this study, according to Page could be that many of the NIH evaluators rate the grant proposals – only 2.4% of them were in In this study, black, have no particular lens when evaluating which research topics take precedence.
"If you have not grown up with an inequality that is so deeply rooted in your lived experience, it will not matter so much to your life choices "The fact that there is data behind it gives us space to talk about it differently. Now we can say that the lens makes a difference. "
Valantine According to NIH, there is also an active test of whether inequality is partly due to racial prejudices of the evaluators. A study to be published early next year, she says, "will tell us if we can close this gap when we anonymise an application."
Regardless of the causes of the diversity gap, the NIH is involved in the study's findings On the one hand, the NIH has already started mentoring programs to increase the diversity of the pool of applicants for grants.
"Black applicants submitted only 1.5% of the total number of applications for this R01 Valantine adds, "We have to do everything. We can increase that percentage."
Meanwhile, the underfinanced themes identified in the study are "business critical" areas of NIH, "says Valantine," The solution is to find out within the NIH how we can ensure that these areas are funded. "