Some see it as a symptom of a discriminatory “bamboo ceiling” in academia: Despite being heavily represented in American biomedical research, Asian scientists are rarely granted the field’s prestigious research prizes.
A new analysis, published Thursday in the journal Cell, paints a stark picture. Less than 7% of recipients of some of the country’s most coveted scientific prizes — including the Lasker Award — are Asian, while other prestigious awards in biology have yet to be given to a single Asian recipient.
The research was conducted by Yuh Nung Jan, a professor of physiology and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the University of California, San Francisco, who along with his wife and lab partner, Lily Jan, is no stranger to prestigious awards. But Jan said he undertook the analysis to highlight what he sees as a chronic underappreciation and widespread invisibility of Asian scientists in this country.
“It really was quite a surprise how skewed the numbers are,” Jan told STAT. “It was news to me and I suspect a lot of people aren’t aware of this.”
Asian Americans, who make up about 7% of the U.S. population, are overrepresented in biomedical research in the United States, making up more than 20% of the field’s researchers. Yet Jan found that Asian scientists have received just 57 out of 838 prizes included in the study, which only looked at American awards. Asian women scientists have fared far worse, receiving less than 1% of the prizes. “Frankly, the numbers are pretty appalling,” Jan said. “What kind of message are they sending?”
There were no Asian scientists among the 68 recipients of either the Gruber Genetics Prize or the Genetics Society of America (GSA) Medal. The irony that prizes in genetics had the worst record in racial inclusivity was not lost on Jan. In a written statement provided to STAT, leaders of the GSA said they fully recognized that they could do more to diversify the pool of nominees and awardees and that they had last year initiated an audit, to be completed this year, “to ensure that award recipients reflect the diversity of the genetics community.”
Leaders of the Gruber Foundation — which also awards a neuroscience prize that had far more Asian scientists among its recipients — said in a statement that the foundation aims for “a selection advisory board, nomination, and laureate rosters that reflect the breadth of the award fields and the diversity of those working within them” and that they “continue to revise processes and procedures to ensure fairness as we strive for a representative pool of candidates.”
In addition to the Lasker Award, whose representatives declined to comment for this story, other prizes with particularly low representation of Asian scientists included the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize and the March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology, among others.
The most inclusive prizes included the Vilcek Prize in Biomedical Science, which is awarded only to immigrant scientists. (In 2017, the Jans were the first Chinese-born scientists to win the award.) Neuroscience awards were also more inclusive, including the Gruber neuroscience award (where 28% of recipients were Asian), and the Ralph W. Gerard Prize in Neuroscience; nearly 10% of its recipients were Asian. Newer prizes were also more inclusive; 14% of the winners of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences are Asian.
Jan, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in China and raised in Taiwan, said he focused his analysis on Asian scientists because it is the group to which he belongs. But he said there are even more glaring gaps for people in racial and ethnic groups underrepresented in science. Not a single award winner was Black, he said, and few were Hispanic.
What may be as striking as the numbers in the paper is the fact that it appeared at all. Asian scientists have traditionally not spoken up about the discrimination they face — which has only been exacerbated by outright racist attacks in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, while others have been chilled by the recent investigation and arrest of a Chinese scientist from MIT.
“We are brought up to do good work, that’s your main focus, rather than be vocal,” said Liqun Luo, a professor of biology at Stanford who is originally from Shanghai and said he was pleased to see the issue being discussed publicly. “There’s a phrase in China that goes something like, ‘The bird that sticks its head out gets killed first.’”
Luo said one problem stemmed from the fact that white scientists often have difficulty remembering or distinguishing Asian surnames. “At meetings, you hear ‘the Asian group’ or ‘the Japanese group’ while Western labs are all called by a person’s name,” he said. The problem, he said, seems to be worsening as more Asian scientists enter the field.
Jan, despite his stature as a leading researcher who has helped unravel some of the most fundamental mechanisms of neural development, has personally experienced the painful “invisibility” of Asian scientists. Once, while chatting with a fellow scientist at a meeting, he realized he was being mistaken for another Asian scientist, the Nobel laureate Susumu Tonegawa. “I doubt very much a neuroscientist would confuse someone else for Eric Kandel,” Jan wrote in his Cell article. Jan said this issue was one all scientists could tackle by making an effort to treat Asian scientists as individuals. “For example, learn their names,” he said.
To Jan, examining the lack of diversity among prize awardees was a way to help raise awareness about the discrimination Asian biomedical scientists continue to face.
When he started the study, Jan expected to see the share of Asian awardees rise as more Asian scientists entered the sciences. Instead, he saw little progress — though he did see signs that prizes were going to more women than before. “The awards still don’t reflect the number of women in science, but at least they are trending in the right direction,” Jan said. “For Asian scientists, it’s trending in the wrong direction.”
Jan said the lack of awards could be explained if Asian scientists were not conducting groundbreaking research, but he found that does not appear to be the case. More than 14% of highly cited scientists in biomedical science are Asian, as are nearly 25% of recipients of sought-after R01 grants from the National Institutes of Health and 17% of HHMI investigators — all signs of scientists at the cutting-edge of research.
The problems, Jan and Luo suggested, might be due to other factors, including implicit bias among those who nominate and select prize recipients, and the clubbiness of science, a field in which those who win awards are often tapped to nominate other potential awardees or serve on selection committees. “There is an old boys’ club nominating their friends for awards and somehow Asian scientists are not part of the club,” Luo said.
Just 6.5% of scientists in the biological and biomedical science sections of the elite National Academy of Sciences are Asian, Jan found. Marcia McNutt, the academy’s president, said in a written statement that the academy is focused “more broadly on seeking out and nominating for membership extraordinary scientists who may have been missed in the past.” She said the approaches appear to be curbing gender disparities — in 2021, 59 of 120 new members were women — and said she thought the efforts would result in increased racial and ethnic diversity as well.
Members of one scientific society, the American Society for Cell Biology, said they are well-aware of the issues raised by Jan’s paper. The society’s lifetime achievement award, the E.B. Wilson Medal, has gone to no Asian awardees in the last decade and to only two since 1981.
In 2020, in conversations stimulated directly by the racial unrest of the time, ASCB leaders decided to systematically examine the awards process. “Forty years is a long time to go without thinking hard from the outside about what’s going on,” said Bill Bement, a professor of integrative biology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who volunteered to lead a task force on the issue. “There was a lot of dust that had to be shrugged off.”
Bement’s group found that a small number of people were submitting most of the nominations, and that the nominating process for some awards was onerous, requiring multiple letters of recommendation. It meant only very established scientists with a lot of administrative support were likely to submit awards, he said. The society has since streamlined the process and opened the awards to include self-nominations as well. “If it truly is a closed club,” Bement told STAT, “then one way to open it is to let people self-nominate.”
One winner of a recent award was a self-nominee, and by far the best in the group of nominees, Bement said. “We all realized without self-nomination, this person would not have been considered,” he said.
Bement said his task force was struck, as Jan was in his analysis, by the fact that Asian scientists were not well-recognized among awardees despite being well-represented in the society’s membership. Selection committees, he said, have since undergone implicit bias training, have become more diverse in their makeup, and are using a rubric agreed upon in advance to make selection choices. In 2021, he said, 28% of the scientists in the annual cohort of ASCB Fellows — an honor bestowed on senior scientists for their contributions to the field — were Asian, compared to 5% in the past.
It’s a positive sign of progress in a field that sorely needs more. While some have called for science to ditch prizes altogether, that’s unlikely to happen. And if awards committees are going to keep handing out prizes, Jan said, they must reflect the full diversity of the community. It’s important not just to the scientists currently at the bench, but to the fledgling researchers following behind. “Young people,” he said, “often say they want to see people who look like them.”
This is part of a series of articles exploring racism in health and medicine that is funded by a grant from the Commonwealth Fund.
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