US struggle for equity in research grants linked to elite dominance

As NIH pushes for improvement on racial and gender measures, drag attributed to growing segment of non-diverse principal investigators

February 28, 2023

As the US works to improve equity in research grant funding, it might need to pay even closer attention to a growing cohort of established scientists who appear to be winning a disproportionately large share of awards, a Yale-led analysis has found.

The review, published in JAMA Network Open, tracked principal investigators who have won three or more major research grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the top supplier of basic research money to US universities. The study team found that racial and gender inequities were especially high among such elite researchers, and that their share among NIH grant winners had tripled between 1991 and 2020.

That accumulation of power might help to explain why the NIH has struggled in its pursuit of equity, even after years of intensive effort, said the lead author of the investigation, Mytien Nguyen, an MD and PhD student at the Yale School of Medicine.

“Despite the NIH’s efforts in diversifying the workforce, we have made very slow incremental progress in equity in NIH funding,” Ms Nguyen said.

Her team suggested some areas for attention, including the fact that the NIH’s leadership has taken steps towards limiting researchers to the equivalent of three major grants at one time but has never implemented that idea across the NIH’s institutes and centres.

Such a move would have benefits not just for equity but also for the overall quality of scientific impact and innovation, according to Ms Nguyen’s team, which included co-authors from Yale University, Duke University, New York University and the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

The NIH’s top official in charge of grant awards, Michael Lauer, the agency’s deputy director for extramural research, said his agency generally understood the situation as described by the Nguyen team.

Yet even more recent data might offer a more optimistic view, Dr Lauer said. Inequities in NIH grant awards did increase from 1998 to the late 2010s, he added. But starting in 2017, he went on, the proportion of NIH funding accumulated by researchers in the top 1 per cent of award dollars has, “if anything, been going down”, he said.

“There has been a decline in the degree of inequality over the last five to six years,” Dr Lauer said. “I don’t know why that is – one possible explanation is that we’ve deliberately been funding more early career investigators.”

The chief example there is the K awards, a category of lower-dollar NIH funding reserved for younger scientists. Women already are winning more than half of K award funding, paving the pathway for equity gains at more senior levels over time, Dr Lauer said.

Achieving racial equity is taking longer, he acknowledged. “Those numbers have definitely been improving; there’s been a substantial increase in the number of black applicants over the last 10 years – there is no question about that,” he said. “But nonetheless, the absolute number is still very low – we have a long ways to go.”

The realities of the US educational system appear to be a notable factor there, Dr Lauer said. “Look at what’s happening in academics,” he added. “What we’ll see in the grant world will likely reflect what’s happening there.”

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