In an accompanying commentary, NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., and Principal Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S, Ph.D., call the findings unacceptable and commit to immediate action by the NIH.
“NIH commissioned this study because we want to learn more about the challenges facing the scientific community and address them head on. The results of this study are disturbing and disheartening, and we are committed to taking action,” said Dr. Collins. “The strength of the U.S. scientific enterprise depends upon our ability to recruit and retain the brightest minds, regardless of race or ethnicity. This study shows that we still have a long way to go. It is imperative that NIH and its partners in the biomedical research community take decisive steps to identify causes and implement remedies. NIH is already moving forward with a framework for action.”
NIH initiated the study in 2008 to determine if researchers of different races and ethnicities with similar research records and affiliations had similar likelihoods of being awarded a new NIH research project grant, known as a Type 1 R01. The study, which also received funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), was conducted by researchers at the University of Kansas, Discovery Logic/Thomson Reuters, and NIH. It found that typical measures of scientific achievement did not translate to the same level of application success for black applicants. The study controlled for education, citizenship, country of origin, training, employer characteristics, prior research awards, and publication record. Although Asian applicants also were less likely to receive an award than white applicants, those differences disappeared when the sample was limited to U.S. citizens. Award probability for Hispanic applicants did not differ significantly from white applicants.
“In order to improve the health outcomes of all Americans, it’s important for the biomedical workforce to reflect the diversity of the population,” said Donna Ginther, Ph.D., professor of economics at the University of Kansas and lead author of the study. “As the population becomes increasingly diverse, we will continue to get further from that goal unless the community intervenes.”
The study is part of a larger effort by NIH to examine and improve the diversity of its funded biomedical research workforce. Diversity includes race, ethnicity, gender, age, disabilities, and socioeconomic status. This study focused solely on race and ethnicity since there are few studies on the racial and ethnic composition of federal research funding applicants. The study provides a solid benchmark for further studies of grant success rates and against which progress can be measured.
While further examination is needed to identify causes for the differences in NIH R01 grant success, one possibility the authors cite is that the quality of educational and mentoring experiences may differ for applicants who self-identify as black or African-American. The study shows that researchers of all racial and ethnic backgrounds improve their award probability by participating in NIH fellowship and traineeship programs. However, NIH training programs did not reduce the differences in award probability for black applicants. According to the study, this may suggest that current NIH graduate and postdoctoral training programs do not equally benefit all racial and ethnic groups.
More research is also needed to investigate the possibility of conscious or unconscious bias in the scientific review process. Applicants’ race and ethnicity were voluntarily disclosed by the applicants themselves as part of the application process. Though information on race and ethnicity of the applicant is not available to reviewers, an applicant’s name or institutional affiliation included in the application biography can be suggestive of their race or ethnicity.
Also of concern to NIH is the low number of applications for NIH R01 grants from non-white applicants. Of the 40,069 individual applicants included in the 2000 to 2006 study, 1.5 percent self-identified as black or African-American (598), 3.3 percent as Hispanic (1,319), 13.5 percent as Asian (5,402), 71 percent as white (28,456), and 11 percent as other/unknown.
These figures are consistent with data showing that the number of underrepresented populations in the fields of science and medicine remains small. While blacks, Hispanics and Asians/Pacific Islanders make up 34 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 18 percent of individuals pursuing graduate degrees in biological sciences, according to a 2008 National Science Foundation survey of graduate students and post doctorates in science and engineering. These three populations are also underrepresented in tenured and tenure track faculty positions within biological science departments, resulting in a dearth in role models from underrepresented populations.
“Recruiting the best minds to biomedical research is a shared responsibility,” said Dr. Tabak, principal deputy director for NIH and chair of the NIH Diversity Taskforce. “It’s up to the academic community to foster and support inquisitive minds and a love of science in people of all races, ethnicities, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds. And it’s up to NIH to ensure that everyone enjoys the same opportunity for NIH funding to succeed in their scientific endeavors.”
NIH has developed and is implementing a framework for action to:
- Increase the number of early career reviewers including those from underrepresented populations. Consistent with the study’s finding that service on NIH’s grant review study sections correlates with success in grant applications, NIH has initiated the new Early Career Reviewer program to encourage promising junior faculty to participate in peer review panels, and learn how these groups discuss, evaluate, and score grant applications. The goal is to develop their skills as reviewers and contribute to the overall effectiveness of peer review. NIH is making a special effort to inform investigators from underrepresented groups about this program. It recently requested nominations of faculty or researchers, specifically including those at less research-intensive institutions who are actively involved and established in biomedical research and have published in high-quality scientific journals, but who may not yet have received major peer-reviewed research support. The aim is to have 50 early career reviewers assigned to each of NIH’s three rounds of grant review in the 2012 fiscal year.
- Examine the grant review process for bias and develop interventions. NIH will conduct innovative experiments to shed light on possible sources of bias in the grant review process, and to develop appropriate interventions. Possibilities include removal of all identifying information from applications, testing reviewer ability to determine applicant race, assessing different types and timing of training against bias, and assessing whether the proportion of minority reviewers on a peer review panel affects outcome for minority applicants.
- Improve support for grant applicants. NIH will assess the value of providing additional technical assistance to applicants in grant preparation, and supporting innovative approaches to encourage more extensive and effective local mentoring of junior faculty.
- Gather expert advice on additional action steps. NIH will gather expert advice through two high-level advisory groups that have been formed by the NIH Director: the NIH Diversity Task Force (part of the NIH Director’s Steering Committee) and an external panel of distinguished experts on a newly formed Diversity in Biomedical Research Working Group reporting to Dr. Collins through the Advisory Committee to the Director. These two groups will address how NIH can better articulate its interest in diversity, better identify actions NIH can take to achieve its stated goals of recruiting the best and brightest minds to the biomedical research workforce, and sustain an environment that nurtures and encourages diversity.
About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation’s medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.
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