Ginther and her colleagues tried several methods to explain the discrepancy, including analyzing whether differences in the topics being proposed for study by blacks or the types of studies they hoped to conduct might be playing a role, but they did not identify any clear explanation. The researchers speculated, however, that several factors could be playing a role. Black scientists, for example, might not be as plugged into professional “peer-review” networks that judge scientific proposals as white researchers. They might also tend to work at institutions that offer less support.
“I don’t think it’s overt racism. I’m not thinking someone is going through the applications and saying: ‘Black, do not fund,’ ” Ginther said. “But it could be a matter of networks — that these investigators are not as well connected as others. Or it could be the resources of their home institutions in preparing the applications.”
The researchers found a 10 percentage point gap in research funding--even after taking into consideration demographics, education and training, employer characteristics, NIH experience and research productivity. For example, for every 100 grants submitted to NIH, 30 grants from white applicants were funded, compared to 20 grants for black applicants.
NIH officials agreed and said they were taking steps to boost the number of black scientists on NIH committees that review grant proposals. Having served on such a committee appears to increase the chances of a researcher later getting a grant, the study found.
“It is a very valuable learning experience in terms of figuring out what works and what doesn’t work in your own application,” Collins said.
Collins said he has also asked two “high-level” NIH advisory groups to investigate: the NIH Diversity Task Force and the newly formed external Diversity in Biomedical Research Working Group, which will report back to him by June.
In addition, the agency planned to conduct more research to try to determine whether NIH reviewers are biased against blacks. Although an applicant’s race is removed before reviewers see applications, evaluators might be able to figure it out through a scientist’s name, where they work or simply because they know who they are.
For example, the NIH plans to conduct experiments in which all information that might indicate the race of the applicants, such as their names and where they work, are hidden to see whether that affects how applicants are evaluated. Another study might assess the ability of reviewers to infer the race of applicants. Reviewers might also receive sensitivity training.
“I would like not to believe that is intentional bias, but I can’t exclude, after talking to lots of colleagues, the possibility that even today, in 2011, in our society, there is still an unconscious, insidious form bias that subtly influences opinions of people,” Collins said. “That may be very disturbing for people in the scientific community to contemplate, but I think we have to think that’s one of the possibilities.”
NIH officials said they had shared their findings with other federal agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, to alert them to the possibility that a similar bias might be affecting their grant-making systems.