Scientific research ideally is colorblind, with merit the only factor in hiring, publishing or the awarding of research grants. But the reality often falls short.
Eight years ago, a study published in Science found that black researchers were 10 percentage points less likely than white ones to receive funding from the National Institutes of Health, even after controlling for factors like educational background, previous research awards and publication record. Its authors theorized that the difference might reflect an accumulation of slight advantages over the course of white scientists’ careers.
That study, which the N.I.H. itself commissioned, prompted the agency to put $500 million toward a 10-year initiative to improve the situation, for example by increased mentoring of minority researchers and efforts to address possible bias in peer review.
But new research suggests racial disparity in grant funding persists, and offers a fresh theory about a source of some of it: research topic choice.
In general, getting grants to do biomedical research is very competitive, and has become only more so as growth in research funding has failed to keep up with inflation. One effect may be a bias toward the low-risk and the proven, and certain kinds of research topics being favored over others may be an aspect of this.
The new study, commissioned by the N.I.H. and published recently in Science Advances, examined data from nearly 160,000 applications in the years 2011 to 2015. It showed that clinical research on community-level health interventions has a harder time getting N.I.H. support than research focused on cellular science, and that black scientists are more likely to be seeking to do the former.
Disparities in topic choice among black and white scientists account for about 20 percent of the N.I.H.’s racial funding gap, according to the study.
George Santangelo, senior author of the new study and director of the N.I.H.’s Office of Portfolio Analysis, said “an inordinately large fraction of African-American applicants” applied for funding in the topic areas less likely to win funding. Nearly 40 percent of proposals from black researchers were on a cluster of eight topics, most deemed less likely to be funded.
Some of the keywords used in applications less likely to get funding: “socioeconomic,” “patient” and “disparity.” The lowest award rate was for those using the terms “ovary,” “fertility” and “reproductive.” Successful applications, by contrast, tended to use words like “neuron” and “cartilage.”
Donna Ginther, an economist at the University of Kansas and lead author of the 2011 study, said in an email that the findings show “a systemic problem where hard/lab science is valued over applied/patient-focused science.” She suggested that some of the terms highlighted in the study showed a devaluation of research on reproductive and women’s health (though earlier studies found women and men have largely an equal chance obtaining N.I.H. grants).
To Farah Lubin, an associate professor of neuroscience at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who reviews N.I.H. funding applications, it is natural that scientists of color are drawn to researching health disparities. She said many academics research issues that personally affect their families, and speculated that black researchers may be interested in patient-centered work because their communities have historically been underrepresented in clinical data.
“Maybe in their own communities they’re seeing loved ones suffering from a specific type of disorder,” Dr. Lubin said. “And there’s very little data on these underrepresented groups because most of it is on Caucasians.” Dr. Lubin said she’s seen improvement in the diversity of N.I.H. application reviewers in recent years, including representation of women of color, like herself.
Human-focused research tends to be more costly and complex than laboratory science. Dr. Ginther noted that a lab experiment affords the researcher complete control, while experiments with human subjects are more variable and prone to outside interference. That could make a funding application for patient-centered research seem like more of a gamble to N.I.H. reviewers.
As Dr. Lubin put it: “Access to humans is tricky.”
The N.I.H.’s funding system is partly self-reinforcing — grants are reviewed by experts chosen to some extent based on their previous success applying for grants. Alycia Mosley Austin, a neuroscientist and assistant dean of diversity at the University of Rhode Island, said that the N.I.H. has sought to address this by involving early-career scientists in their review processes, but the bias is still toward more senior biomedical academics.
This tension between the theoretical and the practical in research is not unique to biomedicine, and sometimes the practical prevails. This year’s Nobel winners for economics were three researchers who have devoted their careers to experimental efforts to fight poverty, and in doing so have helped transform the field of development economics more broadly.
Yet the N.I.H.’s study results worry some scientists because of the signal they might send about low value attached to clinical, community-level research.
“This could be a message to people interested in intervention-based research that they won’t find the support they need to be successful in academia,” Dr. Austin said. “Historically the type of science that gets held up as important is research advancing pure knowledge about how the world works, and the body. Looking at questions of how we stop a certain group of people from dying of a certain thing isn’t as romantic.”
Previous research on N.I.H.’s funding gap, particularly a 2018 follow-up study by Dr. Ginther in PLOS One, showed more than a quarter of the racial funding disparity can be accounted for by discrepancies in white and black researchers’ publication histories — black researchers had fewer papers published and fewer citations. That finding pointed to mentorship as a way to help such researchers navigate academic publishing and thus narrow the racial funding gap.
But as the recent paper suggests, mentorship is no panacea. Racial disparities are deeply entangled with questions about what kind of research the highest levels of academia considers most worthwhile.
One solution might be to rethink about how research money is awarded.
The current funding system is not blinded, which some have criticized as a factor contributing to racial disparities. Application reviewers say a blinded system wouldn’t allow them to evaluate the track records and competency of those vying for funding.
John Ioannidis, a Stanford researcher, has suggested a system that would fund promising individuals rather than specific proposals, similar to the MacArthur or Howard Hughes Medical Institute grants. This could encourage scientists to pursue higher-risk, less-popular avenues of research.
The authors of the new N.I.H. study note that their institute’s funding structure has a lengthy track record of impressive findings. They acknowledge it is unlikely to heed calls for a fundamental restructuring of how its funding works. But the authors hope that their recent findings, like those from 2011 and 2018, can point to concrete ways of addressing the racial gap.
In 2016, the N.I.H. set up the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award, which provides support for the full program of research in an investigator’s laboratory rather than funding a specific project. The N.I.H. said a goal of MIRA is “to support a broad and diverse portfolio” of researchers, and it tracks the diversity represented in award winners.
Dr. Michael Johnson, an immunobiologist at University of Arizona, received a $1.8 million grant through the program in 2018. He said the award allows younger investigators (he is 37) to “swing for the fences” and pursue ambitious areas of research without having to focus singularly on competing against established laboratories.
Now Dr. Johnson, who is African-American, helps review funding applications, and he said for him one question trumps all else in evaluating proposals: “How will it help society in general?” he said. “Taxpayers are paying for it, and I want to make sure things being discovered help them.”