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Racial Bias in Science Grants?

August 19, 2011

A study of grant scoring at NIH has found “racial bias” in grant awards.

This is being discussed in a wide variety of places, all of which I recommend reading.

New York Times
NIH blog
NIMH blog

I could say a great many things regarding this finding. It is a bit surprising, yet not really, and means absolutely nothing. It doesn’t change my previous NIH results, and it won’t change the next one. I am lucky enough that my research isn’t so expensive that I couldn’t do anything without funding (though it helps) and that I don’t work in a medical school where one might need 8 RO1s to even sniff tenure. So as a black academic scientist my reaction here is to think more about alternatives. NSF, DoD, private foundations, etc. I can’t guarantee that none of those places have biases too, but I am now more certain that NIH does. That might seem counterproductive for fixing this apparent problem, but it is a waste of my time and effort if the already small success rate is going to be even lower for me.

Of course the commentary on this result includes a lot of calls to action. You know, striving for things and whatnot. That’s always the reaction when something like this is pointed out so bluntly. It is unclear if any of this will result in real changes for current or future black scientists. It brings a cynical smile to my face, similar to when I comb through the job listing and read all of those statements about “valuing diversity”. A commenter on the NIH blog put it nicely

I will be watching with great interest to see how the NIH backs up all of these nice words about how seriously they take this new revelation of imbalanced outcome for African-American applicant PIs. If we do not see immediate Programmatic adjustments (i.e., grant pickups out of order) to counter this bias, it will be hard to conclude that the NIH sees this as anything other than a PR problem.

The math doesn’t quite work out, but it almost seems that what I’ve heard is true. You do have to be twice as good.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Bikemonkey permalink
    August 19, 2011 4:11 pm

    Hang in there Bashir and don’t give up so quickly.

    Odds are, this discrimination goes beyond the NIH…so where to run to?

    Some black PIs are getting their grants despite the reduced chances….make one of those you.

  2. Bikemonkey permalink
    August 19, 2011 4:13 pm

    Also, I suspect the next couple of years are going to be a very fine time to be an African-American applicant to the NIH…..

  3. August 19, 2011 4:34 pm

    @Bikemonkey – maybe, maybe not

    • BikeMonkey permalink
      August 20, 2011 9:17 am

      The NIH has one tool for immediate change (pickups) and one tool for medium-range change (targeted FOAs). *IF* they are serious about making change this is the obvious step…fund some black PIs.

      I’m betting they won’t be able to resist using these levers to make it look like they are DoingSomething.

  4. becca permalink
    August 19, 2011 4:58 pm

    Bikemonkey- biases usually does go beyond what one particular study finds. Still, with NSF’s broader impacts approach, maybe they at least try a little harder sometimes? I’m really curious what the data from NSF looks like.

  5. August 19, 2011 6:01 pm

    Thank you for the post. You are lucky you can apply for a grant. I’m been paying my taxes for the last 10 years without being represented and I don’t see any chances for me to be a PI, black or white. Cheers!

  6. August 21, 2011 2:00 pm

    Also, congratulations on this interesting blog Dr. Bashir. I’ve subscribed to it and I’m looking forward to other interesting posts.


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