Even with equal training and research records, black scientists still may have a tougher time getting grants from the National Institutes of Health, according to a new study. This is despite the fact that hospitals and medical schools are ostensibly trying to correct the dearth of minorities among doctors and scientific researchers.
According to ABC, ”the study found a 10 percentage point gap between black and white researchers in winning the most common type of NIH grant — even though all held doctorate degrees and had similar research experience. Between 2000 and 2006, about 27 percent of white applicants won funding compared with about 17 percent of blacks.” The study also found differences among Asian and Hispanic researchers, but not the same degree.
That’s a pretty shocking disparity, given that the researchers had the same qualifications. NIH director Francis Collins said that the data was “deeply troubling.” But it may be more difficult to determine why black researchers seem to be receiving less funding.
“That’s the frustrating thing about this paper—in most cases, you can come up with a reasonable explanation looking at the observable characteristics, and we haven’t been able to,” explained Donna Ginther, an economics professor at the University of Kansas, Lawrence and the lead researcher.
Collins seems dedicated to trying a variety of solutions. They will test to see if outcomes change if officials make a deliberate effort to purge applications of all hints of the applicant’s race. There will also be new efforts to train review panelists to overcome racial bias.
In his comments about the study, Collins seemed genuinely chagrined. Black scientists represent only 1.2% of the lab heads funded by the NIH. ”These data suggest we are failing even the ones who do make it,” said Collins.
One possible factor is researchers’ likelihood to resubmit their applications. When their applications were rejected, black researchers were less likely to try again. This means that mentoring could be a potential solution.
Disparities like these are often due to large systemic issues that can be extremely difficult to tackle. It’s a serious challenge, but at least Collins seems ready to conduct a rigorous investigation of just why black researchers receive less funding.
Photo from Urcomunicacion via flickr.