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NIH and the Racial Disparities in Academia

By: Meredith Battaile

In the field of research, the most innovative and groundbreaking ideas from scientists of diverse backgrounds are trumped by the harmful grievances of their white counterparts. In academic medicine in the U.S., Black scientists are inexcusably underrepresented by about 6-fold.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the largest research institute in America. While they fund and produce some of the most innovative scientific breakthroughs in the world, they seem to lack expertise in protecting their scientists against discrimination. According to a study by Science Magazine, Black Principal Investigators (PIs) have a 55% lower chance of receiving funding from the NIH compared to their white counterparts.

Professor Kristyn Masters

In January 2021, Kristyn Masters, a biomedical engineering professor at UW-Madison, joined 18 fellow professors in writing to the NIH to address these issues. While the NIH has attempted to implement some anti-discrimination measures, they have failed thus far, with no recent indication that the institution is attempting to achieve equality. The efforts to give more research grants to Black PIs have been unsubstantial. While some of these grants have helped Black PIs begin their research, there has been no further action taken to help sustain their success. “You don’t just want to set someone up to get started, you want to set them up to continue to succeed,” Masters says.

Meanwhile, the NIH has delegated more funding to research grants awarded to young scientists. Though this may solve the issue of senior scientists receiving a majority of funds, it begs the question as to why the NIH has failed to recognize the racial disparities in funding. Masters stresses that to close this funding gap, the NIH would only have to allot 0.07% of its annual budget to promote diversity, only having to fund about two additional Research Project Grant (RO1) applications per institute.

Masters and her colleagues have suggested different methods that would be effective in limiting this disparity. In a grant review panel, diverse teams would get additional points in their score to make up for the discrimination they face. This idea is plausible as it is already a benefit of the early-stage investigator program.

Some research scientists with unearned privilege have issued complaints due to the fact that they think more inclusive measures will take away from their success or earnings. This is a huge roadblock to the approval and implementation of these measures. Masters disagrees with these complaints. “None of us should be happy about benefiting from a system that is allowing bias to occur,” Masters says.

To combat this issue, Masters and her co-authors believe that bias training should be mandatory in all departments of the NIH. Currently, there is no requirement for bias training at NIH, although many other institutes do implement this type of training, as it is a very common prerequisite for doing many kinds of work. While the NIH may be able to fix its systemic racial disparity issue through funding and hiring, implicit bias must be targeted in a more upstream manner.

While people of color having a disadvantage is detrimental to the growth of diversity in science, what equally adds to racial disparities in funding is privileged scientists having an unearned advantage, what Masters refers to as positive bias. While White PIs might be as qualified as Black PIs for a certain position, their reputation could sway the review panel to accept their proposal over the competing Black PI. Whereas Black PIs have a more difficult time gaining notoriety due to racism in academia, and even though they might be very qualified for their proposed work, their proposals may not get reviewed as favorably as their White PI competitors’. Because of this “positive” bias, Black PIs have to write an estimated twice as many grants to achieve the same success rate as their non-Black colleagues, as well as doing more service.

Diversity is a very important aspect of science and research. Not only does diversity statistically increase innovation of a group, it also is vital to making sure research is well-rounded and caters to the diverse population. For example, Masters explains that pulse oximeters, a medical device that measures oxygen content in blood by passing a light through the skin, work poorly on individuals with darker skin, because the instrumentation was designed for white skin. The pulse oximeter is just one of many medical technologies that are white-centric and demonstrate the harm of systemic racism in research. If there is a more diverse set of scientists working on these technologies, then there will be better, more inclusive healthcare for our diverse population.

Since the letter’s debut in January, as of early April NIH has recognized the systemic racism of their institution, but they have not made any significant steps to end the problems highlighted in Masters’ letter.

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