Lawrence and Douglas County

Lawrence and Douglas county

NIH announces diversity measures after KU professor’s finding that black researchers receive fewer grants

December 27, 2012


Donna Ginther, a professor of economics and director of the Center for Science Technology and Economic Policy at Kansas University.

Donna Ginther, a professor of economics and director of the Center for Science Technology and Economic Policy at Kansas University.

Too often, Donna Ginther says, when a researcher completes a study, it's published in a journal and then more or less forgotten.

But that's not what happened with some findings that the KU economist published last year. Earlier this month, the National Institutes of Health announced new measures aimed at creating more diversity in the field of medical research. The move was in direct response to a study led by Ginther that resulted in some troubling findings: that black researchers were one-third less likely than their white counterparts to receive NIH funding.

"It's changed how the agency thinks about these issues and how it's going to deal with these issues going forward," said Ginther, a professor of economics and the director of KU's Center for Science Technology and Economic Policy.

The federal medical research agency on Dec. 7 announced several different initiatives aiming to address the diversity problem from several angles.

They include a new program for undergraduate students that will give them research experience and financial support, in hopes of increasing diversity in Ph.D. programs; a mentoring program that will connect less-experienced researchers with veteran scientists; and a pilot program that would make NIH grant applications totally anonymous.

Those changes were recommended by a panel that formed in response to Ginther's study last year. Work on that study, commissioned by the NIH in an effort to examine the medical-research workforce, began back in 2008. The results were published in the journal Science in August 2011.

"We're becoming more diverse as a country," Ginther said. "That's not reflected in the makeup of the biomedical workforce."

Her study, which examined grant applications to the NIH from 2000 to 2006, found that black applicants were much less likely to receive grants, even when controlling for numerous other factors.

The reason why was difficult to pin down, she said, but further analysis has shown that there's a lack of diversity at all levels of the medical-research pipeline, from the graduate programs that train researchers to the journals where studies are published.

NIH director Francis Collins has made it clear he considers that a problem, Ginther said. "If you have a diverse group of people working, you get better ideas," she said.

The NIH has asked Ginther to do a follow-up study to help determine why, exactly, that racial funding gap exists. She's examining the same applications she looked at before, but this time with some additional information: the career information that researchers generally include with grant applications, including their educational background, previous research publications and more.

That research is still in progress, she said, but evidence so far suggests that black applicants tended to have fewer published journal articles on their resumés. Because of that, she says, the new NIH mentoring program could be a great step, helping more researchers develop the experience needed to land a grant.

"I think that's the right path," Ginther said.

She said the steps to eliminate bias in the grant approval process are also important, though. It's possible that reviewers are likely to favor applicants with whom they have a connection. "It's important that the review process identify the best science," Ginther said.

For the NIH, which funds more than $30 billion in medical research annually, that's what it's all about, she said: ensuring the best possible scientific work in the future.


formerfarmer 5 years, 4 months ago

Here we go again. Let’s give grants based on ethnicity, not merit. Plus they're trying to fix the perceived problem before they have all the facts.

Currahee 5 years, 4 months ago

Did you not read the part where it said, "Even when controlling for numerous other factors."? The gender pay gap is pretty much a myth (women make 3 cents less for every dollar a man makes in a comparable field) but I am confident they have tried filtering out trivial stuff like this.

Sunny Parker 5 years, 4 months ago

Give the grant money 50/50 to white and blacks. Fit Asians and Hispanics in there too. Merit means nothing..level playing field for everyone. hahahaha

voevoda 5 years, 4 months ago

"She [Ginther] said the steps to eliminate bias in the grant approval process are also important... "It's important that the review process identify the best science," Ginther said. For the NIH, which funds more than $30 billion in medical research annually, that's what it's all about, she said: ensuring the best possible scientific work in the future."

The posters above (formerfarmer, toe, sunny) who tried to argue that Ginther's goal is to award NIH funding based on ethnicity rather than quality clearly did not read the article. Or else--I hope it's not the case that they assume that only white males have scientific talent.

Paul Wilson 5 years, 4 months ago

All of us would tend to agree that people involved with and are employed by Universities are primarily left leaning right? This is a fact. Knowledge rich...common sense poor folks. Bottom line...if you agree with Ginther's conclusions...then you are saying that the Liberals in higher education are racists. Logical conclusion.

yourworstnightmare 5 years, 4 months ago

Ginther's work quite convincingly shows that blacks are funded at lower rates when controlled for many factors (i.e. all else being equal).

Yet another demonstration of the racism that still exists in this country. Blacks are still perceived as being less educated and less scientifically capable.

The "diverse biomedical workforce" argument never appealed to me. Blacks and other minorities should be given every opportunity to pursue science and other careers, but I find it difficult to see how their "diverse culture" will contribute, other than being a role model for other minorities. A diverse workforce does suggest that a society give equal opportunity to all of its members.

hedshrinker 5 years, 4 months ago

Well, I can see fr the above comments that hot buzzwords in the title brought out all the haters; anything that talks about "professors, blacks and diversity" is bound to set up flares for people that despise education, especially college level or above, who think that folks that think discrimination exists r/t race, nat'l origin, faith, gender, sexuality are "whiney slacker liberals" looking for a handout. Sounds like Ginther's study was respected enuf that the NIH (not known as a bastion of liberal whiners) endorsed her findings and implemented some of her recommendations. I say (as a college educated professional and former college instructor, which of course makes me suspect), it's about time. I have been deeply enriched by being surrounded by people of other upbringings, cultures and perspectives who often help me to see perspectives I would never have thought of. Much of the problem in research has to do with WHAT gets funded, not HOW the research is conducted using good science. People of different than mainstream culture/gender, etc often are trying to research topics that flow directly fr their life experiences which are totally different than you or me, but might make a positive difference for all of us.

hedshrinker 5 years, 4 months ago

nothing is completely neutral in practice, especially when it involves how $$$$funding and power are allocated....hence one of the new provisions of the NIH revamping is a pilot program that would make grant applications completely annonymous, according to the above article. That would help to "neutralize" the process so issues of gender, ethnicity, etc wouldn't be obvious.

JSpizias 5 years, 4 months ago

I served as a reviewer on an NIH study section for 8 years. During this time I saw absolutely no hint of any bias. What the study section was looking for was solid creative science that promised to add valuable new information to our knowledge. The head of the study section was a black PhD who was a former grad student colleague at Purdue. He was very bright and did a superb job of managing the review process. He now holds a high level position with the NIH dealing with minority access to research careers. At the time I served there were special grant programs intended to give researchers at minority institutions an opportunity to get the training and preliminary data to eventually be able to compete for what is termed R01 grants. Another Purdue colleague, Luther Williams, served as assistant director of education and human resources at NSF for almost a decade. These and other individuals I knew who made it as scientists were successful because they were very bright and hard working. Scientific ability is not necessarily distributed equally. Look at the number of Nobel prizes won by Jews who represent ~3% of US population. Asians are also found in disproportionate numbers among scientists as a whole and among my colleagues during nearly 40 years of postgraduate education and research in a medical school environment. We need to be trying to offer opportunity and assistance to our best and brightest, irrespective of ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. The idea that we should have equal representation among different groups is a sure recipe for disaster for American science.

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