Black applicants to a prestigious research grant program at the National Institutes of Health are awarded funding at a significantly lower rate than their white peers. The NIH has been intensively investigating this funding gap since a 2011 report revealed the extent of the problem, looking for underlying mechanisms to use as opportunities for corrective intervention.
NIH's latest finding, described in a study released this month in the open-access journal Science Advances, reveals that part of the gap can be attributed to differences in the types of topics scientists propose studying and how those topics are valued by grant reviewers.
The study of grant applications submitted between 2011 and 2015 suggests African American scientists may be more likely to pursue research in topic areas such as community-oriented research on disease prevention, for example, versus more microscopic-level research on cellular mechanisms or the basics of genetics. Those population-based topics aren't being funded as readily.
And that's a problem with the system, some outside researchers point out — not with the choice of research topic.
"I do think that the areas of research that apparently are being funded at a lower rate are important," says David Asai, senior director for science education at Howard Hughes Medical Institute and an advocate for diversity in STEM, who was not involved in the NIH analysis. "This study might prompt the community to think about the underlying biases we might have in deciding what sorts of research deserve greater attention."
The NIH study looked at funding rates in the form of successful applications for R01 grants, which are designed to support "health-related research and development based on the mission of the NIH."
Despite NIH efforts to diversify the pool of scholars doing medical research, white applicants for these grants continue to receive funding at nearly twice the rate of black applicants — 17.7% of white applicants were approved in fiscal years 2011-2015 compared with 10.7% of black applicants.
The researchers analyzed keywords in the topics of 157,549 grant applications and found that some topics were close to four times more likely to gain funding support.
"Among the less favored [topics] are areas that include study of groups of people," says Dr. James Anderson, deputy director for program coordination, planning and strategic initiatives at the NIH and one of the authors of the paper.
"These topics are are described by words like socioeconomic status, physical activity, pregnancy," Anderson says. "The ones that did best were really about molecular mechanisms — cells, or parts of cells. Words like cilium, DNA polymerase, chimeral chemistry, ribosome. It's not absolute, but it's really quite a striking distinction." The success rates by topic ranged from about 29% to 7.5%.
The researchers used self-reported demographic data in an optional portion of the application — one that was not visible to the grant reviewers — to identify each applicant's race. They found that over a third of the applications from black scientists were tied to just eight of the 150 topic clusters.
Six of those eight topics involved "communities, or health disparities, and so on," says Anderson, "and those were in the topics that didn't do quite as well" in the funding process.
This difference in topic preference can account for 20% of the overall funding gap for black applicants, the study found, after controlling for other variables such as the applicant's prior academic and professional experience and accomplishments.
Dr. Hannah Valantine, director of the Office of Scientific Workforce Diversity at the NIH and another author on the paper, says black scientists might be more drawn to certain topic areas at the population level because "connection to one's community, and seeing the disparities, drives people to go into science to create a better environment for their community."
"It's critically important that African American scientists are able to advance their career and stay in academia, not only for their own success, but for enhancing the diversity of the biomedical workforce," Valantine says. "Because we know already that when we have a diverse scientific enterprise, we come up with more creative solutions to the problems that we seek to solve."
That concern resonates with Stephani Page, a postdoctoral fellow in biophysics at Duke University Molecular Physiology Institute and initiator of the Twitter hashtag #BLACKandSTEM, even though her field of study lies on the more statistically successful end of the grant-getting spectrum.
"For me, personally," Page says, "the science that gets me really excited, and I get tingles about, tends to be more quantitative, mechanistic science. But I also have the experience of coming up — growing up and being a mom — as a black woman in this skin. So when I think about what I want my career to be, it's difficult for me to detach from my career meaning something to my community more broadly."
Page says she is losing hope that she can have the community impact she wants — helping black scientists feel affirmed — while working in her current field. "I don't want to be a scientist who can't be committed and devoted to changing the system," she says.
One underlying cause of the disparity this study documented, Page says, might be that many of the NIH reviewers who evaluate grant proposals — only 2.4% of whom were black in this study — lack a certain lens when evaluating what research topics deserve priority.
"If you haven't grown up with inequity as deeply ingrained in your lived experience, it's not going to be as important a lens in your life decisions," she says. "The fact that there's data behind it now gives us a space to talk about it differently. Now we can begin to say that the lens makes a difference."
Valantine says the NIH is also actively evaluating whether the disparity is partly due to racial bias by reviewers. A study to be published early next year, she says, "will tell us whether, if we anonymize an application, we can close this gap."
Whatever the causes of the diversity gap, she says, the NIH is committed to closing it, and the study's results suggest several areas of intervention that could help. For one, the NIH has already begun mentoring programs aimed at increasing the diversity of the grant applicant pool.
"Black applicants submitted only 1.5% of the total applications for these R01s," Valantine says, adding that "we must do all we can" to increase that percentage.
In the meantime, the underfunded topics that the study identified are " 'mission critical' areas of NIH," Valantine says. "The solution is figuring out, within NIH, how we can make sure that those areas are funded."