During the earliest part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) review process for research grants, reviewers score all submitted applications. A group of researchers were interested in whether differences in the way scores are weighed explain Black/white disparities in research funding.

“This is important because preliminary overall impact scores determine whether an application will make it to the next round of evaluation,” says Elena A. Erosheva, PhD, associate director of the University of Washington Center for Statistics and the Social Sciences.

Peer reviewers evaluate submissions based on five specific criteria: significance, innovation, approach, investigator(s), and environment. Reviewers also give an overall impact score. “We focused on the earliest part of the review process, where reviewers provide scores for all submitted applications,” says Erosheva, lead author of a recent study.1

Black investigators received worse preliminary scores for all five criteria and a lower overall impact score.1 These findings surprised Erosheva and colleagues. “We found that preliminary criteria scores do not explain all of the variability in preliminary overall impact scores,” Erosheva says.

This is understandable, since there are additional considerations reviewers use in determining preliminary overall impact scores. More surprising was the finding that scores for these specific criteria completely explain Black-white disparities in the overall scores.

Erosheva and colleagues also reported differences in funding rates. For fiscal years 2014 through 2016, the overall award rate for Black applicants was 10.2% vs. 18.5% for white applicants. “This gap decreases when we consider Black/white applicants who are matched on several key variables,” Erosheva explains. These include area of science and application type (new or renewal).

Black principal investigators receive lower rates of funding and lower peer review scores than their white peers, according to the study. “This raises concerns about whether or not NIH grant peer review is upholding the ideal of universalism, and whether NIH grant review is meritocratic or not,” says Carole Lee, PhD, another of the study’s authors and an associate professor in the department of philosophy at the University of Washington. “Scientific ideas should be evaluated on the basis of their merits, not on the social identity — race, gender, religion, or prestige — of the person espousing those ideas.”

Black applicants published fewer articles, and these articles appear in less prestigious journals, according to the authors of a another study.2 “Although Black investigators publish the same number of papers as white investigators, these papers are cited less often,” says lead author Donna Ginther, PhD.

Ginther and colleagues discovered some, but not all, reasons for the Black/white funding gap. One explanation is Black investigators may not receive as much advice from mentors regarding tips for successful publication vs. white colleagues. “These disadvantages appear to accumulate,” says Ginther, director of the University of Kansas Institute for Policy & Social Research.

Regarding gaps in citation and publication, the gulf widens when Black researchers are principal investigators, especially those who did not receive funding. Ginther and colleagues discovered Black investigators trail white colleagues in published papers (two or three fewer, on average). Papers that are published are cited less often.

Further, Ginther and colleagues found Black investigators are listed with fewer co-authors, and there are lower average sums of impact factors for those papers. Topic choice is another cause of the funding gap in NIH applications submitted by African American/Black scientists vs. white scientists, according to the results of a third analysis.3 African American/Black applicants tended to propose research at the community and population level, which average lower award rates than more fundamental and mechanistic investigations.

Black and African American researchers are more likely to conduct studies to address health disparities, but these studies are less likely to receive funding. “This suggests that, as a society, we are not allocating our research resources to address this pressing need,” Ginther offers.

Ethicists can alert their institutions to disparities. “They can also advocate for increased mentoring of underrepresented scientists at the PhD student and postdoctoral levels to facilitate improved career outcomes,” Ginther suggests.

REFERENCES

  1. Erosheva EA, Grant S, Chen MC, et al. NIH peer review: Criterion scores completely account for racial disparities in overall impact scores. Sci Adv 2020;6:eaaz4868.
  2. Ginther DK, Basner J, Jensen U, et al. Publications as predictors of racial and ethnic differences in NIH research awards. PLoS One 2018;13:e0205929.
  3. Hoppe TA, Litovitz A, Willis KA, et al. Topic choice contributes to the lower rate of NIH awards to African-American/Black scientists. Sci Adv 2019;5:eaaw7238.