Research and Funding

NIH-supported study finds disparity in research project grants

December 1, 2011

(Published in LINKS: Minority Research & Training - Fall 2011)

NIH Principal Deputy Director Discusses Findings at NIA Council

Diversity is a priority for the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—diversity among employees, research participants, and grantees. Results of an NIH-commissioned study, also funded by the National Science Foundation, and reported in the August 19, 2011 issue of the journal Science, were "troubling and unacceptable," NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., said in a statement.

The study looked at NIH’s record with the grantees, specifically exploring whether researchers of different races and ethnicities with similar research records and affiliations had a similar likelihood of being awarded a prized new NIH research project grant, a Type 1 R01.

“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,” Dr. Collins said.

He added, “The strength of the U.S. scientific enterprise depends upon our ability to recruit and retain the brightest minds, regardless of race and 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 Principal Deputy Director, Lawrence A. Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D., presented study findings and NIH’s framework for action at NIA’s September National Advisory Council on Aging meeting. He reported that black applicants from 2000 through 2006 were 10 percentage points less likely than white applicants to be awarded a new R01 from NIH. This finding persisted after controlling for factors that typically may influence the chance of a grant award. Factors included education, previous NIH training, employer (i.e., institution’s reputation, success at receiving NIH funding), and previous NIH grant and/or NIH review experience.

Tabak indicated that Asian and Hispanic applicants also had lower success at receiving a new R01 grant. However, unlike the analysis of black R01 applicants, researchers did find factors that contributed to this disparity. Eliminating from the cohort those applicants who were not U.S. citizens when they received their Ph.D. effectively reduced the disparity between Asian and white applicant success, such that it was no longer statistically significant. In addition, controlling for the researcher’s employer, his or her previous NIH grant or review experience, and the Institute that received the application, mitigated the difference in Hispanic success. Finally, Tabak noted that of the 40,069 applicants looked at in this study, 1.5 percent self-identified as black or African American, 3.3 percent as Hispanic, 13.5 percent as Asian, and 71 percent as white. Race and ethnicity are not factors revealed to grant reviewers.

NIH has begun to implement action steps to rectify the problems identified in the analysis, including the development of a special working group focused on diversity in biomedical research. NIH has four goals:

  • Increase the number of early career reviewers, including those from underrepresented populations
  • Examine the grant review process for bias and develop interventions
  • Improve support for grant applications
  • Gather expert advice on additional action steps

For more about this study and NIH’s response: www.nih.gov/about/director/08182011_statement_diversity.htm; citation: Ginther, et al., Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Awards, Science, 333, 1015 (2011).

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