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Editorial: Solving Bias in NIH Funding to African-American Researchers

As was disclosed recently, African American researchers are 10% less likely to be funded after applying for an NIH grant than White researchers. While this is not new to many of us, Dr. Donna Ginther and the team of researchers from the University of Kansas are to be congratulated for providing documentable information on the size of the problem.

The problem probably exists on at least three levels. As is noted, scientists are human even while they sit on grant review panels. It is impossible to separate individual biases from judgments, even in a professional setting, and it is usually possible to discern the background of the investigator even after the removal of specific identifiers.

At another level, the thinking of review committees is often guided by that of the most senior established scientists on the panel.  In the review committee environment, there may be deference to doing things a certain way because of a number of factors ranging from “this is the way we’ve always done it” to political factors and power differentials. Hence new ways of thinking, evolving values in research, or new viewpoints on what research should be pursed often do not see light in this setting.

In addition, at the systems level rigidity may be expressed in terms of policies and procedures, such that the process is constricted at moments, but open at other moments, allowing the beliefs of the controlling members to pervade without question or accountability. The systems in place to maintain continuity and standardization of process may lack the flexibility to be responsive to changing needs.

As the NIH considers this problem which could extend health disparities ad infinitum, consideration of several strategies should be helpful.

First should be an in depth transparent review of the entire NIH grants making process. The qualitative aspects should be as visible as the quantitative.

Second, with the review in hand, it may be beneficial to convene African American scientists who have been successful, and those who have been unsuccessful and chosen not to re-apply, to compare notes on the system and make recommendations for modifications which may reduce or eliminate the disparity in funding.

The definition of merit should also be reviewed by this group of scientists. What is considered “good research” from a micro level perspective that examines the intricacies of objectives, methods, measurement and the like may be evaluated differently when one considers the overall proposal. Similarly, there may be differences between individual scientists in the value attributed to specific research and methods. Diversity of individuals and professional backgrounds participating in the process of defining merit within a framework that may incorporate sociological and ethical considerations may be helpful.

There should be recognition of the settings in which many African American scientists practice; inadequate resources are a likely factor in the problem. Funds should be made available for small universities and Historically Black Colleges (HBCUs) to recoup the loss when a key faculty member is inundated by research responsibilities in addition to their teaching duties. Supporting the researcher’s released time, travel funds, and faculty development funds can make a big difference in the amount of time many African American researchers can devote to grant activities.

The research priorities of African Americans also deserve attention and would likely draw the attention of African American researchers. However, African American researchers are likely to be committed to applied research which will show early benefits; however, institutions such as the NIH and others may often have a focus on and place a higher value on basic research.  HBCUs have been struggling with this issue for many years as can be seen in several schools including my own, Morgan State University. HBCUs have formed several alliances in order to enhance their impact and address mismatches between differing priorities and capacity for research as well as other issues that contribute to disparities. Supporting some of these alliances, such as the Consortium of African American Public Health Programs, could have far reaching benefits for African American researchers, African American participation in research, the African American public, and the entire populace.

Written by Dr. Allan Noonan, Dean
Morgan State School of Community Health and Policy

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