Blacks At Disadvantage In Winning Research Grants

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Compared to white research applicants, African-Americans are 10 percent less likely to receive grants from the National Institutes of Health. That's according to a new NIH study. Host Michel Marin speaks with two of the study's authors to learn why this grant gap exists and what can be done about it.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Coming up, so you can finally run in that office 5K without stopping to catch your breath. Congrats. Now, try running 135 miles through the California desert. We'll talk to a man who did just that for fun. We'll ask him why he and his fellow ultramarathoners put themselves through it. That's coming up a little later in the program.

But first, we want to return to a subject that we have touched on from time to time. Minorities in science. Recently, we talked to a number of minorities who were first in the space shuttle program and we asked the question, why they were so often the first or one of the few of their backgrounds in their field.

Well, today, we want to talk about a recent study published by the journal Science that found that African-Americans are significantly less likely to get coveted research grants compared to white research applicants.

And what's interesting is that the researchers thought they'd find an explanation in some factor like the nature of the institutions where those black scientists worked or their training. It turned out, they didn't find such an explanation and they didn't find such a gap when white applicants were compared with applicants from other ethnic backgrounds.

So what's going on here? To talk more about this, we've called upon Donna Ginther. She's the lead researcher of the study. She's a professor of economics at the University of Kansas and she's joining us from Kansas Public Radio. Professor Ginther, thanks so much for joining us.

DONNA GINTHER: Oh, you're most welcome.

MARTIN: Also with us, Raynard Kington, senior author of this study, the president of Grinnell College and he's with us from his office in Iowa.

Dr. Kington, thank you so much for joining us. Mr. President, thank you.

Dr. RAYNARD KINGTON: Happy to be here.

MARTIN: Now, Mr. Kington, I'm going to start. Sorry. Dr. Kington, I'm going to start with you. You previously worked for the NIH. And while you were there, you wanted to examine this question. Why is that? What put this into motion?

KINGTON: Well, many of us felt that we had a significant amount of compelling evidence that in spite of years of doing programs 20 - in some cases, 30 years - to increase representation of underrepresented minorities, that we weren't seeing that translated into the coveted status of being a principal investigator of an NIH grant.

And we found that never in the history of the institution was there ever even 2 percent of the principal investigators from African-American community. So we thought we needed to drill down and understand why.

MARTIN: Professor Ginther, will you tell us a little bit more about this gap?

GINTHER: Well, we got data from the NIH looking at whether or not an applicant got an R1 award, which is the main grant that makes you a independent investigator.

And we looked at about 80,000 applications and we controlled for practically everything that the review panel sees when the application is submitted. We looked at their training, education, their prior research experience, whether or not they had NIH grants in the past, whether or not they served on an NIH review committee, publication and citations, everything. We did everything but read the proposals.

And then we looked to see if there were race ethnicity differences and, you know, the raw data shows that black applicants were about half as likely as white applicants to receive funding. And then, when we put all of our variables in the model to control for similar backgrounds, we found that blacks were still one-third less likely to receive NIH funding.

MARTIN: For example, while 29 percent of applicants from whites were funded, only 25 percent of Asian applications were funded. But when you dug deeper into those numbers, you found that there was a citizenship difference, which may account for a language difference in how well the application was presented.

But all those variables disappeared when it came to African-Americans. So you didn't also find a gap with Hispanic scientists, as well. So what have you come up with? What are you both thinking is the issue here? And Dr. Kington, I'll start with you. What do you think is going on here?

KINGTON: Well, I think there are two broad categories of issues we have to deal with. I think the most important is looking at the system of training and support for scientists over the course of their careers and looking rigorously to see if there are subtle ways and maybe not so subtle ways in which African-American scientists in particular are disadvantaged over the course of their careers that might ultimately lead to their not being as competitive in terms of submitting applications. I think a lesser pathway, but one that we also have to address, is the possibility that how we review applications may provide opportunities for unconscious bias.

I also want to note that, although we didn't see a difference for Hispanic scientists, there's a significant caveat there. In almost every dimension of American life, there are huge differences across subgroups and Hispanic groups. And I think we really have to drill down to see if the Hispanic subgroups who are now going to be those in large numbers graduating from our high schools have an experience that's more like white applicants or more like African-American applicants when they come to the system.

MARTIN: So, for example, there might be a difference between Cuban-American applicants and Mexican-American applicants or among people who have been here long, for example.

KINGTON: Yes, or Puerto Rican.

MARTIN: There might be something like that. Or Puerto Ricans or Dominicans or something like...

KINGTON: Yes. Because there are big differences.

MARTIN: Professor Ginther, what do you think? Now that you've had a chance to look at this data, I understand that you were as surprised as anybody by this gap, that you didn't expect to find it once you controlled for all these other variables. What do you think? What do you think is going on here?

GINTHER: Well, I would just reiterate what Dr. Kington said. You know, it comes down to one of two explanations. There is either, you know, blacks are not submitting competitive proposals, which points to the training that they're receiving, or there's something going on in the review process that serves to disadvantage black investigators. And I think, you know, I applaud the NIH for looking into both of these issues.

MARTIN: Well, apparently the director of NIH, Francis Collins, said he was deeply dismayed by this. Dr. Kington, why does this matter? For those who might say, well, you know, if the applications just aren't competitive for whatever reason, that's too bad, but that's just the way it shakes out. Why does this matter?

KINGTON: It matters deeply for the entire country, I believe, because it means that we may not be, as a country, getting access to the very best minds and ideas, wherever they may be. So whenever we see these systematic group differences, the question is, are we missing great minds who can participate in scientific enterprise and potentially solve our problems? And this is even more of an issue with the growing heterogeneity and growing diversity of the population.

Just this morning, it was reported out that I think three states now have a majority of minority attending college and soon four. Texas will join. So that suggests that the future of the country is shifting. The future demographics are shifting and we need to care that, as this occurs, we may be having systematic problems that prevent the best minds from being engaged.

MARTIN: Would you talk a little bit more, Dr. Kington, about what you meant by unconscious biases? I mean, do you think it's biases toward an assumption that a black scientist presenting an application might not be as qualified, even if he or she is? Even if he or she has, you know, met all the markers? Or could it be that the subjects that these African Americans want to study or that the grant makers don't find this compelling? They just don't think it's as interesting or as important? What do you think? What are you talking about?

KINGTON: I mean, actually, it's both of those. So unconscious bias, there's a compelling amount of evidence through many dimensions of American life, whether it's letter of recommendation or resumes sent in job applications or in many other features of American life, that there are systematic biases and decisions that permeate our culture. And we've even seen this in terms of CVs and letters of recommendation for men versus women that are sent in for medical school job applications, as applications.

So an unconscious bias is sort of something, obviously, you're not aware of. So, race per se is actually not identified to reviewers. But I would argue that it's relatively easy to infer a race, still, from the associations individuals belong to or where they went to college or where they might be from. Information that would be able to reveal, either consciously or subconsciously, what the person's racial group is.

And that ultimately leads to a consistent pattern of unconscious bias. In some ways, we would be surprised if we didn't see it in this context because it so permeates almost every other dimension of American life when it's been looked at.

MARTIN: Finally, Professor Ginther, as a person who's done this analysis, is there a next step that you'd like to take in digging into this question further? As briefly as you can.

GINTHER: Well, there are two next steps. A thorough evaluation of race ethnicity differences in outcomes for training. And Dr. Collins suggested doing experiments with the review process, where you actually anonymize a review and send it to the review process a second time and then compare the scores. You know, that comparison will tell you whether or not there's bias in the review process.

MARTIN: Donna Ginther is a professor of economics at the University of Kansas. She joined us from Kansas Public Radio. Dr. Raynard Kington. He is medical doctor, as well as a PhD, is president of Grinnell College. He joined us from Grinnell, Iowa. Thank you both so much for joining us.

KINGTON: My pleasure.

GINTHER: My pleasure. Bye-bye.

KINGTON: Bye.

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