Topic choice works against black NIH applicants

Green and blue and yellow succulents bunched together
Jack Haskell: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lifeviaplanes/

In 2011, a study led by economist Donna Ginther of the University of Kansas in Lawrence found that black applicants were significantly less likely than white applicants to be funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Since then, NIH officials have examined a host of factors that might cause the disparity, from the historical advantages that white men enjoy to overt discrimination by grant reviewers. But the picture remains cloudy.

Now, NIH scientists have identified a key factor they hadn’t previously considered: the topics that black scientists want to study. Specifically, black applicants are more likely to propose approaches, such as community interventions, and topics, such as health disparities, adolescent health, and fertility, that receive less competitive scores from reviewers. And a proposal with a poorer score is less likely to be funded. The finding is already prompting discussion about whether that disparity is rooted in NIH’s priorities—and whether those priorities should be rethought.

The study, published on 9 October in Science Advances…

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