Scientist examines cassava leaves for pests,” International Institute of Tropical Agriculture

October 23, 2019; Colorlines

In 2011, a study published in Science found that Black scientists were 10 percent less likely to receive funding for biomedical research than their white colleagues. The National Institute of Health (NIH) put $500 million behind a 10-year initiative to close the funding gap by supporting the education and mentorship of emerging Black scientists and exploring whether reviewers have unconscious racial bias.

Eight years later, Black scientists are still less likely to receive funding for biomedical research.

How has the funding gap continued despite the NIH’s efforts? The answer is multifaceted, but a recent study has identified a key cause. Research topics that trend the highest with Black scientists are less likely to get funded by the NIH. According to the new study, topic choice accounts for 21 percent of the funding gap.

Topics that are less likely to be funded and more likely to be pursued by Black scientists are patient and community-focused studies as opposed to lab-based studies.

Stephen Thomas, professor of health services at University of Maryland in College Park, recognizes why his Black students might focus on research that could directly generate solutions to national health crises.

As an African American who came up through the academic ranks and has the scars to prove it, I can understand why someone growing up among people who have been systematically discriminated against may be motivated to become a scientist because of a desire to address those problem. I’m not saying that doesn’t motivate white scientists, too. But I’ve seen it in many of my students.

Previously in NPQ, Catherine Jones reviewed a report finding no link between how common or deadly a cancer type proved and the amount of nonprofit funding granted to those cancer types. The funding disparity appeared to be more related to the public’s comfort with the diseases than to overall need. Similarly, in this case, it is important to understand why particular topics are underfunded.

Since research funding is currently at a low, it’s more likely to be awarded to low-risk research with less complicating factors. Community-based projects that involve humans can be more difficult to control and therefore seem riskier to reviewers. By passing on these “riskier” topics, studies with important practical implications are undervalued and underfunded.

The authors of this new study hope that their findings can be used to design interventions to close the funding gap. They recommend increasing diversity within applicant pools, particularly within the group of scientists who have recently earned their Ph.D. and are looking to transition into a faculty position. Then, they encourage the NIH to offer quality guidance on navigating their application system to ensure a more even playing field during the application process. Finally, they suggest that NIH institute directors “may wish to consider establishing a policy that directs discretionary funding to meritorious applications on topics that are underappreciated by review but align well with their strategic priorities.”—Julie Euber