Topic choice harms black scientists seeking US research funding

Finding illuminates US health agency’s overall avoidance of human-centred research

October 9, 2019
Lab tests
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Black scientists win fewer grants from the US National Institutes of Health in part because they choose research topics – such as health disparities and patient-focused interventions – that scientific experts consider less important, a study has found.

The NIH reached the conclusion after a team of top agency officials investigated the roughly two-to-one difference in award success rates between the NIH’s black and white applicants.

Their conclusions, published in the journal Science Advances, affirmed previous studies attributing the funding gap to such factors as institutional resources and career stage of the applicants. But their work then added the novel finding concerning choice of topics.

“These results were a surprise,” said the NIH’s director, Francis Collins. He said that topics favoured by black scientists “are vitally important” and that more research was needed to understand what could be hindering their prioritisation.

Topic choice appeared to account for 20 per cent of the overall race-based funding gap, according to the review of grant applications submitted to NIH by more than 45,000 scientists between 2011 and 2015.

The only factor contributing more to the black-white gap in NIH grant success rate, the analysis found, was the applicant’s professional biography.

That’s reflected, the authors said, in the fact that black applicants fare better in competing for NIH grants once they win their first grant. Similarly, they said, white applicants experience lower approval rates when they propose grants on topics looking more at human-centred research questions rather than laboratory-focused experimentation.

That, said Sandro Galea, dean of Boston University’s School of Public Health, suggested that the problems at the NIH may go beyond racial fairness in grant awards – as important as that is – to more fundamental questions about how the NIH views its public health mission.

“In many respects,” Professor Galea said, “the core solution to this problem is a recalibration of what is funded by NIH, to include topics of deep social import that historically marginalised groups – and others – are very interested in, and consider foundational to the health of populations.”

Several NIH officials said they agreed on the need to study human-centred preventative behaviours and community implementation of discoveries, but did not fully realise how that was not reflected in the agency’s actual funding levels.

“It’s not really NIH” de-emphasising such work, said one of the study’s authors, James Anderson, the NIH’s deputy director for programme coordination, planning and strategic initiatives. “It’s the peer reviewers, who are not NIH staff – they’re folks that come in to review grants.

“They’re showing slight preference towards certain types of science and away from the community and people.”

Professor Anderson said it was “very reasonable” to conclude that applicants and reviewers favoured work that involved molecules and Petri dishes rather than less predictable humans. But, he said of the preference gap, “We didn’t know this in a quantitative way.”

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