Race or Productivity?

Study challenges earlier research that found black applicants less likely than comparable white applicants to receive NIH grants.

February 20, 2013

A new study shows no correlation between race and research funding from the National Institutes of Health, challenging previous findings that the agency's review processes favor white applicants.

The allegation of racial bias stems from an August 2011 study that concluded white researchers were almost twice as likely as black researchers to receive funding through the NIH’s Research Project Grant Program (R01) -- even after controlling for a variety of demographic and professional factors. The findings sent the NIH scrambling to reassess how it awards research funding. Recently, the agency has floated the idea of an anonymous review process.

"I like to use the analogy that if you don’t know exactly what’s causing the disease, but if you’re in medicine, you treat the symptoms," said Donna K. Ginther, a University of Kansas professor of economics who served as the lead author of the original study. "If you look at the policies the NIH have announced, they’re treating the symptoms."

But researchers at China Medical University, Peking University, the University of Chicago and the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences revisited the study, claiming the lack of a quantifiable method to determine individual contributions to co-authored journal articles “has seriously compromised quantitative studies on the relationship between academic productivity and research funding."

The team used an approach developed in 2010 by the study’s corresponding authors, Ge Wang, an adjunct professor of biomedical engineering at VT-WFU, and Jiansheng Yang of  Peking University’s School of Mathematical Sciences. The approach uses mathematical axioms to distribute credit between co-authors, while also ranking journals by reputation, tallying article citations and weighing those citations against the reputation of the articles in which they appeared -- three specific measures of academic productivity. In other words, Wang and Yang's system accounts for the fact that co-authors don't always make equal contributions by giving special weight to the authors most prominently featured in a publication.

Initial results from funding and publication reports between January 2008 and August 2011 resembled the original study; compared to white applicants, black applicants received only about half as much funding and saw about one-third fewer projects given a green light by the NIH. But when those numbers were normalized by Wang and Yang’s system for measuring productivity, the study concluded “the NIH review process does not appear biased against black faculty members.”

Specifically, the study showed black researchers produced fewer papers and were cited less frequently than their white counterparts.

Ginther described the study as "a complement as opposed to a competitive explanation," but she also noted the two studies' different methodologies.
"They’re concluding there’s no bias comparing black and white grant recipients. Our study was about the fact that black applicants were less likely to be funded. I think it’s kind of an apples to oranges comparison," she said.
Ginther also hinted at future research that will focus on black faculty members' research productivity.
"Citations explain some of the [funding] gap, but it doesn’t fully go away," Ginther said. "Our hunch is that networks matter, and that part of the funding gap may be not having access to the same professional networks."
In light of the contradicting conclusions, some scholars are cautioning the NIH against enacting dramatic measures. By leaping to conclusions about racial bias, "We will not know if we were correct until we have the results of our social experiment, which will take years and have unknown consequences along the way," said Joel L. Voss, an assistant professor at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Ginther applauded the agency's efforts to diversify its ranks. "Who is going to do science 20 years from now? The biomedical workforce is aging rapidly," she said. "You want researchers who kind of reflect the interests of the public health and population. Right now there’s a mismatch."


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