Research topic contributes to persistent gap in NIH research grants to black scientists

Oct. 10, 2019

Research topic preference accounts for more than 20 percent of a persistent funding gap for black scientists applying for National Institutes of Health (NIH) research project (R01) grants compared to white scientists, according to a new study by NIH scientists.

Researchers examined each step in the application submission and review process for R01 applications submitted between 2011-2015. The study confirms previous findings that career stage and institutional resources influence the gap in the number of submissions by black and white researchers. However, the finding that black applicants as a group are more likely to propose research topics that are less likely to be funded was new. The study published in the journal Science Advances.

The study identified disparate outcomes between black and white scientists at three decision points: selection for discussion, impact score assigned by the review panel and research topic choice, a previously unstudied factor. Reviewers in study sections, which are composed of subject matter experts recruited from the scientific community, showed a preference for research topics that tend to have methodologies that are highly controlled with very precise outcomes.

Black applicants were more likely than white applicants to propose research topics that receive awards at a lower rate, such as community or population-level research. Research topics with the lowest success rates included health disparities research and patient-focused interventions. Importantly, white researchers also experienced lower award rates in these topic areas, although less so than black researchers.

Despite significant efforts by NIH to close this funding gap first identified in 2011, it continues to persist. This new research identifies opportunities for interventions that could bolster NIH’s scientific workforce diversity efforts underway, such as the Diversity Program Consortium and the MOSAIC program.

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