A Kansas University professor has found that black researchers are less likely to get projects funded by the National Institutes of Health in a study that has attracted the attention of the federal medical research funding agency’s leadership.
The researchers, Donna Ginther, a KU economics professor, and Raynard S. Kington, a former NIH deputy director who is now serving as president of Grinnell College in Iowa, found that black researchers were half as likely to have their grant proposals funded, and began to ask themselves why. The study was published in the journal Science.
“We believed that there should be some rational explanation for this gap,” said Ginther, the study’s lead author.
So they gathered data from 2000 to 2006, and ran experiments that controlled for just about every variable they could think of — including previous grant funding and the kinds of institutions the scientists worked for. Even after controlling for the data, the researchers still found a significant disparity. Black researchers were still one-third less likely to receive funding than white researchers, Ginther said.
“It’s disconcerting and surprising,” she said.
The NIH, which paid for the study, has responded positively to the information, Ginther said, and is promising to investigate the issue further.
Francis Collins, the agency’s director, has acknowledged that this is an issue, and has indicated that the trend continues today, Ginther said.
“This situation is not acceptable,” Collins said, according to a New York Times report. “This is not one of those reports that we will look at and put aside.”
Ginther said her research had two possible implications — either proposals from black researchers were not as competitive or that bias was present somewhere in the process.
“I don’t know if there’s bias,” she said. “You can’t tell from the study, but you can’t rule it out.”
Applications for funding go through a peer review process, Ginther said, and while race doesn’t appear on the applications that the peer review team sees, some biographical details may still make the person’s race known to the committee, she said.
“Scientific communities are really small, and it could be that everyone knows everybody else, and people who are known to the review committee have a better chance,” she said.
The NIH will be conducting experiments to seek further explanations, Ginther said, including one that will have research sent back through the process with all the identifying information and institution affiliation removed from the proposal after it gets peer reviewed in the normal process to see if the decisions change.
“For the leader of the NIH to embrace social science in this way is really gratifying,” Ginther said.