A black scientist that applies for a federal research grant with the National Institute of Health (NIH) is notably less likely to receive funding than a white one, according to a study published in the journal Science [pdf], which was sponsored by NIH.
The NIH revealed that for ever 100 funding applications it considered for approval, 29 of the grants were awarded to white scientists. That compared with 16 that went to black scientists.
Researchers even made adjustments in their assessments to account for discrepancies by only comparing scientists from similar institutions and with similar backgrounds. Still, the imbalance persisted.
“It is stricking and very disconcerting,” said Donna K, Ginther, a University of Kansas professor who led the study, in an interview with The New York Times. “It was very unexpected to find this big of a gap that couldn’t be explained.”
While the study may have not found any acceptable reason (i.e. something other than blatant racism), there are factors to consider.
First, there are far fewer black scientists than white ones — something many likely consider a problem in and of itself. Out of the 12.6 percent of the US population that is black, only 2.9 percent are medical students or school faculty members. And a mere 1.2 percent are lead researchers in a biomedical field.
Because there are simply fewer black scientists, there are also fewer black scientists applying for grants. According to the study, 71 percent of applicants were white; 1.5 percent said they were black; 13.5 percent were Asian; and 11 percent identified themselves as “unknown” or “other.”
The study’s researchers concluded that even the blacks who do choose to enter the scientific researcher field are at a disadvantage to their white counterparts.
“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,” said Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of NIH, “but for those who have come and joined us, there is an inequity in their ability to achieve funding from the N.I.H.”
Dr. Collins says that the prejudice in the NIH is likely an unconscious one.
“Even today, in 2011, in our society, there is still an unconscious, insidious form of bias that subtly influences people’s opinions,” said Dr. Collins. “I think that may be very disturbing for people in the scientific community to contemplate, but I think we have to take that as one of the possibilities and investigate it and see if that is in fact still happening.”
“This situation is not acceptable,” Dr. Collins added. “This is not one of those reports that we will look at and then put aside.”