Thursday, August 18, 2011

Race bias in science funding

It's a fairly well accepted fact that there are pipeline issues in getting racial minorities into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) careers in the US. But it turns out that even once you get there, there are still hurdles.

A recent study published in Science (see the News and Views here) found that black PhDs have lower R01 funding rates than any other ethnic group (they note that there was also a disparity in NSF funding). While there are (due to the above mentioned pipeline issues) many fewer black applicants, 29% of white applicants were funded, 25% of Asian applicants were funded and only 16% of black applicants were funded. When only US citizens are included (to minimize language barrier bias), the funding gap between Asian and white applicants disappears, but the funding rate for black applicants was still 10% lower.

Why the disparity? They controlled for as many variables as possible (training, publication record, etc), but the gap remained. One theory was that better mentoring allowed whites and Asians to submit higher quality applications, but one would then expect a lower funding success rate for Hispanic applicants as well, but this was not observed.

Obviously, the NIH is working to determine what is causing this gap so that it can be closed. Reviewers do not have access to information about an applicant's ethnicity, but perhaps it is being inferred from the name, location, or college attended. My personal guess is that there's a bit of an old-boys-club effect going on, in addition to other factors such as not having access to high-quality mentoring and grant-writing training in their early career.

PS - There are also programs that try to address the minority pipeline issues by supporting STEM students from a very young age with high-quality mentoring and research opportunities. I recently became aware of the extremely rigorous physician-scientist training program, and there are many others.

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