A recent New York Times article reported a disturbing disparity in RO1 grant funding between African American scientists and those of other races/ethnicities at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). Researchers analyzed the probability of receiving an award using data from the NIH IMPAC II grant database, the Thomson Reuters Web of Science and other sources. They found that:

“Black or African Americans were 14 percentage points less likely to receive NIH investigator-initiated research funding compared with whites... After controlling for the applicant’s educational background, country of origin, training, previous research awards, publication record, and employer characteristics, we find that black applicants remain 10 percentage points less likely than whites to be awarded NIH research funding.”
The disparity persisted even when controlling for participation in NIH-funded career development programs. The results were startling, even to the NIH, which commissioned the study. The New York Times interviewed Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., Director of the NIH:
“The medical research community has long struggled to recruit more minority scientists. For example, about 2.9 percent of full-time medical school faculty members are black, Dr. Collins said; according to census figures, blacks make up 12.6 percent of the population. But the study now shows that the few blacks who do enter research are not on an even playing field. ‘It indicates to us that we have not only failed to recruit the best and brightest minds from all of the groups that need to come and join us,’ Dr. Collins said, ‘but for those who have come and joined us, there is an inequity in their ability to achieve funding from the N.I.H.’”
It’s unclear how race and ethnicity ultimately factor into the review process. Although RO1 grant applicants self-identify race/ethnicity in their applications, that information is withheld from grant reviewers. The researchers surmise:
“…it is possible that cumulative advantage may be involved. Small differences in access to research resources and mentoring during training or at the beginning of a career may accumulate to become large between-group differences. This suggests that more analysis on the impact of NIH training may be warranted. In addition, further research into the review process could help to understand why variables that increased the likelihood of an application receiving a priority score for the full sample did not have the same impact for applications from black investigators.”
We at AcademyHealth are sadly not altogether surprised by these findings but deeply disturbed by them. We believe that the underrepresentation of minority researchers in science is a significant problem and are committed to nurturing a far more diverse field of health services researchers than we currently have. Why is diversity important? Vital diversity of perspective and expertise is lost when scientists do not fully represent the populations they study.  But as this study suggests, it is not always easy to identify the exact mechanism(s) perpetuating differential success at securing research funding or the appropriate policy levers to address it. As an organization, we are committed to promoting diversity among our members and the field of HSR at large, as well as supporting the study of disparities in health and health care. To date, our diversity efforts have focused on racial/ethnic diversity and underrepresented minorities in the field of HSR, as defined by Moore and McGinnis:
“Like many professions, HSR appears to be dominated by non-Hispanic whites (83.8%) with an overrepresentation of Asians relative to their proportion of the population (8.4%). Only 5.7 % of respondents were from underrepresented minority groups – Black/African-American (3.4%), Hispanic/Latino (2.1%) and Native American/American Indian (0.2%). Representation of all minorities has increased since 2002 – to 16.2% from 12.8%.”
We’ve taken a number of approaches to address these issues through our diversity initiative – tracking demographic trends in the field, developing scholarship and career development opportunities for underrepresented minorities in HSR, offering networking opportunities through the Disparities Interest Group, and convening experts and stakeholders to address the problem in focused workforce meetings, such as the HSR Learning Consortium. And yet, these findings underscore that there is still much more work to be done to investigate underrepresentation in the HSR workforce and the implications for the work the field does. I’m left wondering what else we can do, what’s working, and what’s not? I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments. It will take all of our best efforts to accelerate our progress! --Lisa This post was submitted by Dr. Lisa Simpson, AcademyHealth president and CEO Related content: While you’re here, check out these organizations that are currently funding training opportunities and other diversity-focused initiatives: (Many of these programs also have a mentoring component and have fostered a growing community of past and current participants.)
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