Even after the researchers accounted for other factors that could help explain the discrepancy, such as differences in scientists’ education and training, black applicants were still about 10 percentage points less likely than whites to get NIH funding, the researchers reported. About 27 percent of white applicants’ requests were successful, compared with only about 17 percent of blacks’.
Asians applying for money appeared to be slightly less likely than whites to get grants, but that gap disappeared when the researchers matched equally qualified white and Asian U.S. citizens. Hispanics were about as successful as whites.
The findings are troubling because they indicate that race remains a significant factor in who gets funding for research into diabetes, cancer, heart disease and other health problems from the premier funder of biomedical research, the researchers said.
“We have a very serious issue,” said Donna K. Ginther, director of the University of Kansas Center of Science, Technology and Economic Policy, who led the study published in the journal Science. “Science needs to reflect the diversity and power and potential of the population.”
NIH’s internal auditing had indicated that there might be a problem with bias in its scientific review process. The agency initiated and helped fund the study to investigate those concerns. Officials agreed the new findings were alarming and outlined steps the $31 billion agency will take to try to address the problem.
“This situation is not acceptable,” NIH Director Francis S. Collins told reporters during a telephone briefing. “This data is deeply troubling.”
For the study, Ginther and colleagues analyzed data collected by the NIH from all scientists with doctorates applying for the most common grants the agency hands out. The data included the applicants’ race and were combined with information garnered from other sources, including where researchers were educated, their training, whether they had applied for grants before and whether they served on NIH committees.
Only 1.4 percent of applications came from black scientists, even though they account for about 12 percent of the U.S. population, the researchers found. Moreover, the applications from black scientists tended to receive poorer scores than those from whites, resulting in bleaker chances of getting funded.
“Our research says, ‘If you hold everything else constant and the only thing different between these two investigators is the color of their skin, that person is less likely to get funded,’ ” Ginther said.