Unless you’ve been living under a rock recently you’ve heard that the NIH came out with a report of a possible racial bias. Specifically the report concluded that African-American scientists were less likely to be granted funding from NIH, even when controlling for various relevant factors. There was a brief brouhaha, responses from NIH, and commentary from scientists (more links at the bottom).
Reactions ranged from “Well this couldn’t be true. I know people at NIH and they are very nice.” to “The whole grant system is rotten, so this isn’t surprising”, also “Maybe those people just aren’t good scientists” and “Actually I bet the opposite is true: a positive bias” Essentially, the typical distribution of responses for the possibility of such a bias.
Perhaps there’s no systemic bias on the part of the NIH grant system. There are a variety of reasons the NIH numbers could be low. The NIH is just one part of the a much larger system, there’s undergraduate education, graduate education, faculty hiring and such that feed into those numbers. Some have suggested that this is really just a reflection of biases in resource allotment at the home institutions. The obvious counterpoint is to take a look at the numbers for NSF, which aren’t perfect, but much closer to equal. I can't add much to the analysis of the actual report. I’m no statistics expert. The study sounded reasonable, though I’m sure there area some fair criticisms. All I can say is that it is entirely plausible that there is a systemic bias.
If the study results are taken at face value, it implies that NIH, an organization near the heart of the scientific endeavor in the United States, is exacerbating the problem; not improving things, or even being neutral. That is shocking. The stats that I have looked over show that the proportion of black scientists reduces at every level of the academic ladder (figure 1). It is difficult to think of a more effective way of shedding black scientists than to throw a wrench in the NIH-R01 mechanism. The possible existence of such a powerful deterrent should give everyone pause when reading those ridiculous “we encourage diversity” statements that many institutions have written up for job ads and mission statements. Nice words I suppose. Who knows what the actual actions or results may be. Right now it's not looking so great for NIH.
Fig1. Percentages of African-Americans in my general field, which is one of the highest. Bachelors (18%), PhD (10%), Tenure Track (7%).
Given this possibility, what’s a black scientist to do?
Switch to that other granting agency down the road? Make a note in your tenure file? Complain?
NIH has promised swift action. Meanwhile, black scientists are going up for tenure, applying for jobs, submitting papers, and applying for more grants. From the perspective of the individual scientists there's not much to do if there were bias in any of these areas. So, while this seems like a big deal, it is rather forgettable. What’s going to be done by NIH? How would this change the situation for current or future black scientists? The report did push me to examine other sources of funding, which I had already been considering. Like other cases of systemic bias, there doesn't seem to be much recourse for the individual. Were some African-American scientists negatively affected? Maybe. If so how could we even identify them for sure? If things are “fixed” how long will that take? There’s a possibility that things will be a little closer to fair for the folks coming up 5, 10 years from now?
I can see why a black scientist might read over this report and just shrug. Same shit, different day. Even if we all agreed that there bias in the grant system, the wants and needs of scientists with regard to obtaining grants remains the same. Even "proof" of past or current bias wouldn't change many people's situation one bit. Thus, even though it would seem that this story could not be more relevant for an early career African-American scientist, there doesn't seem to be much to do with it. Better to spend time working on writing those papers and writing those grants, even if it is the case that they might look at you funny.