Racial Disparity in R01 Awards

By Ken Wannemacher

In August of last year, an interesting study appeared in Science, examining R01 grant applicant’s race in the context of the probability of receiving funding. In this study, Ginther and colleagues examined R01 applications submitted between 2000 and 2006 from over 40,069 unique investigators (83,188 applications total) and found that African-Americans were significantly less likely (13.2 percentage points) to receive an award compared to white applicants. The authors attempted to explain this disparity by controlling for the applicant’s education and training, research environment and research productivity. Despite all of these additional measures, African-American applicants were still funded less frequently compared with white applicants.

Asians were also less likely to receive funding (3.9 percentage points); however, this difference was not significant when the sample group was restricted to those that were US citizens at the time of receiving their doctorate. This suggests the possibility that the ability to communicate effectively is a significant barrier for non-US-trained scientists for whom English is not their first language. However, citizenship normalization did not explain the disparity for African-Americans.

The inability to explain the lower funding frequency among African-Americans is troubling. Although there were a small percentage of applications from African-American scientists in this data set (1.4%), the funding percentage should have been the same regardless of the size of the group. The fact that it is not points to a failure in the system. To say that racism doesn’t occur in this country is simply naïve, and unfortunately this possibility needs to be considered. However, one could argue that the problem may not lie with the NIH grant review process, but could be due to the early career success of African-American scientists. As was stated in the Ginther study and further elaborated on in a follow-up commentary by Joel Voss, funding was irrespective of race when only those applications which received scores, were considered. This suggests that the racial disparity observed when all applications are considered is due to lower-quality applications that are not being reviewed. This may correlate with a lower percentage of last authored papers, fewer citations and less prior history of NIH F, T or K award support among African-Americans. All of these factors affect R01 funding probability as reported in this study. The reasons for these findings are unclear but should be examined further.

This study could be a much-needed eye opener to the dearth of minority faculty appointments in this country and will hopefully spur changes. On the other hand, it could have the opposite effect by exacerbating the perception within the minority community that they have to climb an even bigger mountain to achieve success. Will the next generation of minority scientists pursue this career path when they’re told that they are at a disadvantage? At the very least, I think many will be deterred unless this perception is changed.

Due to space limitations, I have only scratched the surface of the data present in this study by Ginther and colleagues. I invite everyone to take a look at this study as well as the follow-up commentaries in the November 18th issue of Science  (Vol. 334. 899-901) and encourage anyone to submit their opinions either in an email to me, or ideally, in a future article in this newsletter.

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