NIH director ‘truly sorry’ for ‘structural racism’ in funding

Health research funder promises broad attack on racial inequality

March 1, 2021
Racial injustice protesters
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Prodded by a year of racial turmoil, the US National Institutes of Health is embarking on a sweeping initiative through which it promises to tackle anti-black inequality in all that it does.

In outlining the commitment – covering both its internal staffing and scientific work, and its funding and oversight of university-based research – the NIH admitted that more than a decade of more modest steps had largely failed.

“I want to say to you, quite frankly, those efforts have not been sufficient,” the NIH’s director, Francis Collins, told a meeting of his outside advisers.

“To those individuals in the biomedical research enterprise who have endured disadvantages due to structural racism, I am truly sorry.”

The NIH has been working on the project internally for several months, calling it the product of a “series of intense” discussions among the leaders of all 27 of the agency’s institutes.

Unveiling it to the NIH’s advisory committee to the director (ACD) – a panel comprised largely of outside academic experts – Dr Collins and other NIH officials emphasised their determination to move beyond studies and promises to acts of implementation with measurable success.

Yet they also envisaged long timelines.

“We’re not going to solve it in just a year or two,” Marie Bernard, the NIH’s acting chief officer for scientific workforce diversity, told the ACD. “And five years from now, we will see improvement, but it may be an even longer process than that, I think.”

The one specific programme that the NIH announced as a start is a plan to spend $60 million (£40 million) over five years on 20 research grant awards to study and address race-based disparities in healthcare.

Beyond that, an outline of the plan talks of steps that include reducing race-based differences in research grant funding, smoothing career pathways for minority scientists, improving the capacity of minority-serving institutions, and eliminating other inequities experienced by minorities at the NIH and within universities.

Smaller-scale efforts by the NIH date back at least a decade, after a 2011 study led by Donna Ginther, a professor of economics at the University of Kansas, shook the agency by showing that black grant applicants were 13 percentage points less likely than their white counterparts to win NIH funding.

The situation has improved since then, but not by much, according to new data that NIH officials gave the advisory council. In 2020, it showed, white applicants had an average grant success rate of 31.3 per cent while black scientists were at 23.6 per cent.

In pleading for patience, Dr Collins cited the new level of awareness raised by the George Floyd killing. “We all woke up to the needs of this in a particularly dramatic way in 2020, and we are aiming not to let this moment pass,” he said.

Yet Professor Ginther, in an interview, admitted her disappointment with the progress since her 2011 study. Asked to grade the NIH for its work in the past decade, she answered: “An A for effort and a C-plus for results – what they did in the past decade hasn’t, in my opinion, moved the needle all that much.”

The NIH has taken steps in recent years that include creating specific grant programmes, funding opportunities and mentoring aimed at minority scientists. But the NIH has struggled to identify specific sources of bias in its regular grant award allocation systems.

NIH officials did produce a study in 2019 showing that black scientists appear more interested in community-oriented research on disease prevention, while white scientists seek better-funded opportunities in microscopic-level laboratory research.

That, Professor Ginther said, points out at least two major steps that the NIH has not taken or is unable to take: make its data more accessible for outside scientists to examine and draw their own conclusions from, and increase funding in its divisions that black scientists prefer.

The latter option may be partially outside the NIH’s hands as Congress sets the budgets for each of the 27 institutes at the NIH, limiting the agency’s flexibility in reallocating the $42 billion it receives annually in government funding.

The lack of outside access to NIH data seems more solvable, Professor Ginther said. “You can attack problems when you can measure them,” she said.

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