WASHINGTON – Black scientists are less likely than whites to win research dollars from the National Institutes of Health, says a study released Thursday that is prompting changes at the premier science agency.
"This situation is not acceptable," declared NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins, who announced steps to better train young scientists in seeking the highly competitive grants and appointed a high-level task force to explore other actions.
Increasing diversity in science, to better reflect the U.S. population and its health problems, is a big concern. While women have made gains over the past few decades, minorities, especially blacks and Hispanics, still make up a small proportion of the nation's doctors, medical school faculty and biomedical researchers.
The NIH has long run diversity programs but suspected they weren't working well and thus commissioned the study, published by the journal Science.
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.
A smaller gap with Asian applicants disappeared when researchers weeded out those who weren't U.S. citizens and presumably had more language difficulties in crafting their applications. The study found no Hispanic gap, although Collins urged closer examination.
Also of concern, minorities were less likely to apply for NIH grants. Just 1.5 percent of applicants were black, even though they make up about 12 percent of the population.
"All of this should worry scientists and worry the American people at large," said Grinnell College President Dr. Raynard Kington, a former deputy director of NIH who is black. "The American people may not be reaping the benefit of having the best minds and the best ideas being supported to go out and solve our major health problems."
No one is blaming overt racism. Race and ethnicity information is stripped from applications before they go to the "peer review" committees that evaluate and grade the funding requests.
It's not clear what's causing the gap, said University of Kansas economist Donna Ginther, who led the study of more than 83,000 grant applications. One possibility, she said, is that white scientists accumulate more advantages earlier in their careers, such as mentoring, that help them formulate better proposals in what is a fierce competition for scarce research dollars.
But Collins said peer reviewers may guess race from biographical information, and said NIH will study if "an insidious form of bias" may be playing a role.
There was no racial gap among the highest-scoring applications. But when applications were rejected, black researchers were less likely than whites to revise their work and try again, which Ginther — who had to resubmit several times before winning her own first NIH grant — said suggests a lack of mentoring.