Sep 13 2011

Double Whammy

We, as a civilization, had a long and dismal period that we call the ‘Dark Ages’. Generally speaking, this refers to a time when, for a variety of reasons, we had little by way of practical knowledge of the world and took a giant step backwards in terms of not only technology but of philosophy and thought as well. It took us hundreds of years to regain the ideas and developments that our historical predecessors had developed. In that intervening period, there was massive and widespread suffering among all classes of people, particularly the poor. What knowledge we had about medicine, climate, mechanics, and the the basic tools required to gain and test such knowledge was not available to the ‘common’ people, who through a combination of practical necessity and active oppression at the hands of those that didn’t think such people were ‘ready’ for scientific truths, were kept in the dark.

Through heroic courage and dedicated study, European civilization was able to pull itself out of its tailspin and re-establish itself. This was not necessarily to everyone’s benefit, but many of the principles espoused by post-Renaissance Europe are sound and admirable, and I am satisfied that Enlightenment principles, whatever their source, are the way forward. However, it seems as though in the ghosts of the dark ages are re-emerging:

Black scientists in the US are much less likely to be awarded funding than their white counterparts, says a US government research-funding agency. The National Institutes of Health said that out of every 100 funding applications it considered, 30 were granted to white applicants. This compared with 20 to black applicants.

The study, published in the journal Science, found the gap could not be explained by education or experience. It suggested small differences in access to resources and mentoring early in a scientist’s career could accumulate, leaving black researchers at a disadvantage.

Now, to be sure, this is not the same situation as medieval Europe. Black people today, even as statistically disadvantaged as they (we) are, are far better off than the vast majority of medieval Euroopeans. I am not trying to forge some kind of equivalence between the entire collapse of a society and failure to receive grant funding. However, what this does put me in mind of is the seemingly-intentional exclusion of a group of people from those pursuits that can have the biggest impact on improving their lives. I suppose now that I should state unequivocally that I don’t think the National Institute of Sciences is being intentionally racist or actively discriminating against black scientists – what I am saying is that the proof is in the outcome. There appears to be a systematic bias at the NIH against black scientists:

We investigated the association between a U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) R01 applicant’s self-identified race or ethnicity and the probability of receiving an award by using data from the NIH IMPAC II grant database, the Thomson Reuters Web of Science, and other sources. Although proposals with strong priority scores were equally likely to be funded regardless of race, we find that Asians are 4 percentage points and black or African-American applicants are 13 percentage points less likely to receive NIH investigator-initiated research funding compared with whites. After controlling for the applicant’s educational background, country of origin, training, previous research awards, publication record, and employer characteristics, we find that black applicants remain 10 percentage points less likely than whites to be awarded NIH research funding. Our results suggest some leverage points for policy intervention

Those who deny the existence of systematic racism often make the argument that the differences observed between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ is due to real and meaningful differences in things like education. It is entirely right that scientists who are less qualified to conduct research (lacking in practical research experience, lacking in credentials that demonstrate scientific competence, lacking the infrastructural capacity to guarantee quality data collection) should not receive the same number of grants. However, this study controlled for education and other related qualifications, so we can’t use that as an explanation of the disparity. It also controlled for the quality of application itself, as evinced by the quality score that each application received, so that’s off the table as well.

The next obvious culprit is that because these NIH grants are really difficult to get, what we might be seeing is simply black applicants giving up more easily. After all, many of these kinds of things are only awarded on repeat resubmission. Maybe black scientists, thanks to the culture of poverty put forward by the welfare state and affirmative action, are simply expecting things to be handed to them. When they don’t get it, they give up. Perhaps white scientists, used to having to work for their success rather than getting a hand up from ol’ Uncle Sam, show the kind of perseverance, dedication, and willingness to adapt that is required to be a success:

Next, we examined the average number of grants per person, the proportion of investigators submitting single and multiple grants, and the likelihood of application resubmission. On average, investigators had three to four Type 1 R01 grant applications each. We found that blacks and Asians resubmitted more times before being awarded an R01 (2.01, P < .06 and 1.85, P < 0.001, respectively) compared with whites (1.58), and at the same time blacks (45%) and Hispanics (56%) were significantly less likely to resubmit an unfunded application compared with white investigators (64%, P < 0.001) (table S6)


The one factor that seems causally linked with success that the authors could find in their exploration of the data had to do with differences in having received training programs on writing NIH grants, but even when that effect is ‘controlled for’ statistically, black scientists still trailed by 10 percent. The damage, of course, goes much further than simply the individual scientists. Science and critical thinking is the path to greater success and innovation in the black community, and if black scientists are, as the data seems to suggest, discriminated against based on their race, then this disparity will only become more deeply entrenched.

So what are they doing about it?

NIH director Francis Collins said it would take action to address the potential for “insidious bias” in the grant process. Mr Collins said it was possible that reviewers could guess the race or ethnicity of an applicant by looking at names or where they trained. He said they would look at reviewing grants on the basis of scientific merits alone, without requiring information about an applicant’s qualifications or background.

This is the kind of response I like to see. Not a bunch of denials, not a bunch of arch-liberal hand-wringing over “how could this happen in this day and age?”, just a clear plan of action. Say what you like about Francis Collins’ wacky justification for his theism, but never deny that he’s doing the right thing here. I will be interested to see the follow-up study to see whether this improves the situation, or if there is yet another explanatory factor.

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