Study Finds (and Examines) Gap in NIH Funding for Black and White Researchers

August 19, 2011

White applicants for grants from the National Institutes of Health were significantly likelier than black researchers to win funding, according to a Science magazine study published Thursday that sought (and struggled) to explain the reasons for the gap. The study found that about 16 percent of black applicants were successful in winning NIH grants, compared to about 29 percent of applications from white researchers and 25 percent of Asian researchers. The gap between black and white applicants shrank (to about 10 percent, from 13 percent) but was sustained even after controlling for factors such as the applicants' educational background, country of origin, training, previous research awards, publication record and employer characteristics. But the gap disappeared among applicants whose applications emerged from the peer review process with "strong" scores.

The study, which was commissioned by the NIH and drew expressions of concern from its officials, said it was difficult to gauge what caused the gaps in grants or in the scoring of the submitted proposals, but suggested that they could be caused by differences in the quality of the papers or by racial bias. "Although our models do not fully explain the funding gap, the greatest differences between blacks and whites that we observed were in the effect of previous training and the probability of receiving a priority score," the researchers wrote. "Although more research is needed to discern the basis for the award differences, it is possible that cumulative advantage may be involved."

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