A new study challenges the notion that there is racial bias in grant-making at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), a major concern for the agency since a 2011 study, published in Science, found evidence of such bias.
The original study, led by Donna Ginther, an economist at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, found that, after controlling for other factors such as publication record and educational background, black applicants were 10% less likely than whites to land an NIH award (see ‘Black applicants less likely to win NIH grants‘). Agency director Francis Collins called the findings “unacceptable” and chartered a working group of his advisory committee to address the problem.
In December, Collins implemented many of that group’s recommendations, launching a ten-year, US$500-million initiative to provide grant support and mentoring to minority undergraduates, as well as a study-section programme piloting anonymized applications (see ‘NIH tackles major workforce issues‘).
Now, writing in the Journal of Informetrics, Ge Wang, until this week the director of biomedical imaging at the Virginia Tech–Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences in Blacksburg, challenges the idea that there is a problem — at least, a problem with bias in NIH study sections. (Wang has just moved to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.)
Wang and his colleagues applied a mathematical analysis to a random sample of 40 black faculty members in both clinical and basic sciences at the top 92 US medical schools. They were paired with 80 white faculty members using criteria matched for gender, degree, title, specialty and university. The authors found that the black scientists were less productive.
They also identified a subgroup of 11 black faculty with NIH funding and paired them with 11 white faculty members. They found that the black faculty outdid white counterparts in both number of NIH-funded projects and funding totals when compared to scientists with similar productivity levels. “In contrast to the [Ginther et al] Science paper,” the authors conclude, “our results suggest that there is no significant racial bias in the NIH review.”