Ever since a landmark 2011 study supported the long-held notion that African American scientists were significantly less likely than white researchers to receive funding from the National Institutes of Health, researchers have sought to better understand what’s behind the gap.
A new paper builds on that previous work to find that research topic choice is partially driving the disparity, accounting for 20% of the funding gulf. Looking at data from nearly 160,000 funding applications from 2011-2015, researchers found that topics dealing with cellular and molecular science were more likely to be funded by the NIH — and black scientists were less likely to be studying these topics. They tended instead to focus on clinical research that looked at population- and community-level interventions.
In the findings, published Wednesday in Science Advances, white scientists got funded at a rate that was some 1.7 times higher than black scientists.
“Black scholars have a burden of trying to convince their colleagues that their research topics are not far from mainstream and that they are legitimate and have value,” said Alycia Mosley Austin, a neuroscientist and assistant dean of graduate recruitment and diversity initiatives at the University of Rhode Island, who was not involved in the study.
The researchers, all of whom work at the NIH, looked at six different stages of the application review process — from which applications merited more in-depth review to how different agencies within NIH handed out the final awards.
During peer review by non-NIH scientists in the same field as the applicants, 44% of applications from black investigators were discussed, compared to 57% from white investigators.
Of the grant proposals that were discussed, roughly a quarter of the ones from black scientists were funded, compared to about 30% of proposals from their white counterparts. Overall, this meant that only about 1 in 10 applications from black researchers received NIH funding. That same figure for white researchers was more than 1 in 6.
The researchers also divided the applications into 150 topic-based word clusters to assess funding trends and found that black scientists were more likely to study topics that involved human subjects — or clinical sciences — a finding that study author Dr. Hannah Valantine said may be explained by representation. When it comes to research departments across the country, “[black scientists] are better represented in clinical areas than in the basic sciences,” said Valantine, who is the NIH’s chief officer for scientific workforce diversity.
Nearly 40% of proposals from black researchers were in only eight of the 150 topic clusters.
Going even deeper, researchers used these word clusters to group applications based on how often a particular topic area was funded. When the researchers looked at the different words in the eight topics that black scientists were often working in, words such as “socioeconomic,” “patient,” “intervention,” and “disparity” were prominent — research associated with these word clusters were also funded at a rate of between 11%-17%.
In contrast, words not associated with black researchers’ work included “osteoarthritis,” “neuron,” and “skin” — and such research was funded at a rate of around 13% to almost 30%.
The study authors say what’s less clear is why certain topics are funded over others. George Santangelo, director of the NIH’s Office of Portfolio Analysis and senior author of the study, speculated that since scientists are trained to study basic mechanisms, those reviewing grant applications would look more favorably on research with the same approach.
As far as next steps, the study authors emphasized the need for better mentoring of black scientists to help them better navigate the current grant application process. At the same time, they also highlighted the need for more such applicants.
“One really important takeaway is that the actual numbers [of black applicants] is very, very small. Out of the 160,000 applications, some 1.5% were from black scientists,” Valantine said. “The measure of success is to increase those numbers.”
But Austin said she is apprehensive of putting the onus on black researchers.
“I don’t know what it would look like to recreate the review process to reduce disparity, but we’ve had decades of trying to fortify those who have been disadvantaged by the system,” she said. “I would wish to see the NIH use their institutional clout and might to proactively legitimize this intervention-based and community-based research” that black scientists tend to pursue.
The NIH has already taken steps in recent years to address these gaps, including introducing specific initiatives focused on increasing diversity among the agency’s workforce and providing mentoring support to scientists from minority backgrounds.
“It’s about making sure there is equity,” Valantine said, “so that the message is not that of a deficit in an individual, but perhaps an opportunity to intervene in the systems.”
Correction: When asked about her study of grant applications, Dr. Hannah Valantine said, “Out of the 160,000 applications, some 1.5% were from black scientists.” An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the percentage of applications from black scientists.