Psychology and Policy in Play

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Color Me Unsurprised.

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Courtesy of S.L.

Health disparities are my thing, my niche. Understanding the gaps between economic class, sex, gender, race, and ethnicity captivate me. Coming across a new study investigating the impact of race and ethnicity on receiving a RO1 research grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) obviously gained my full attention during my early morning at internship. Now, grant classification and their respective importance is really only known and understood by those in the scientific industry. In an attempt to explain, a RO1 grant is one of the oldest and most prestigious sources of funding given by NIH for studying health. The success rate for RO1 applications varies by year and division of NIH due to fiscal funding, but it typically ranges from 20-30%. Applicants from a variety of organizations – small businesses, non-profit organizations, hospitals, universities, faith-based, etc. – are eligible for receiving this highly coveted award as it can provide more than $250,000 for research endeavors. Award money is allocated to help researcher(s) cover expenses needed to run a study or studies. Expenditures such as an applicant’s salary, tuition for graduate student, laptops, and office supplies can purchased with the grant. More importantly, an RO1 is instrumental for professors vying for tenure because universities want to know that their faculty has the skill set to bring in money a.k.a. grants, particularly MAJOR ones. Without an RO1 grant under one’s belt, their chances of gaining tenure decreases, and their job security at the university becomes uncertain. A RO1 grant plays a large role in deciding who achieves university faculty status and in determining which scientific issues are addressed.

Back to the study, Ginther et al. (2011) investigated over 83,000 RO1 applications and approximately 40,000 Ph.D. applicants to see if a race and ethnicity influence the likelihood of receiving the grant. Color me unsurprised (although Ginther was), findings show that race does factor into the likelihood of receiving a RO1 grant. Black scientists were less likely to receive the grant, not only in comparison to Whites, but also in comparison Asian and Hispanic scientists. The difference seen in Asian researchers disappeared when accounting for Asians who are not U.S. citizens, yet the gap remained when controlling for non-U.S. citizen Black applicants.

Figure S3 shows that 87% of Asian, 45% of black, 56% of Hispanic, and 25% of white applications were from non-U.S.-citizen investigators. When the analysis sample was restricted to include only those applicants who were U.S. citizens at the time of Ph.D. receipt, the difference in a R01 award probability for Asian applications was cut in half and was no longer statistically significant (table S8). However, the 10 percentage point difference in award probability for blacks did not change (–0.107, P < 0.001) after including all covariates.

Throwing in other potential factors, such as training post-graduation, number of citations, previous research awards, and type of origin, had no effect on the chances of Black applicants obtaining a RO1.

 Compared with R01 applications from white U.S. citizens or permanent resident investigators with previous NIH training experience, applications from black investigators were 13.5 percentage points less likely to be funded (P < .001). For all applicants who received F or T training, blacks were 27.4 percentage points (P < .001), Asians were 6.9 percentage points (P < .01), and Hispanics were 9.5 percentage points (P < .01) less likely to ever receive an R01 award compared with whites. A closer investigation of the impact of training by race/ethnicity may provide insight into differences in R01 award probability and perhaps provide a policy lever for diversifying the scientific workforce.

Even more, Black and Hispanic applicants were less likely to resubmit rejected applicants, and Black scientists had to resubmit more times to receive a RO1.

Together, these data indicate that black and Asian investigators are less likely to be awarded an R01 on the first or second attempt, blacks and Hispanics are less likely to resubmit a revised application, and black investigators that do resubmit have to do so more often to receive an award. Assistance with the grants submission and resubmission process may provide a policy lever for diversifying the scientific workforce.

The authors put forth several reasons to explain their results. Per usual in studies and conversation about minorities getting the short end of the stick, the authors contend that perhaps the applications were of lower quality. Another possible explain, albeit with more substantive weight, was the “cumulative  advantage, meaning that access to research resources and mentoring during training or at the beginning of a career may accumulate to become large between-group (different racial groups) factors. This likely has more influence than the former explanation, which seems to imply that minorities are possibly incapable of producing work of equal quality.

Because this study is the first of its kind, definitive statements as to the cause of these findings are highly premature. Yet, explanations other than those in the preceding paragraph should be considered. One is the required biographical sketch and curriculum vita required in a RO1 application. Biographical sketches and curriculum vitas can allude to one’s racial and ethnic background. Both state the educational and training experiences of the applicant as well as memberships to professional organizations. Receiving a degree or training from an institution known for having a large ethnic minority student body can lead reviewers to infer the racial background of an applicant.

Another indicator of race is belonging to organizations that focused on the needs of ethnic and racial minorities either professionally, clinically or in research. Let’s talk about another possible racial identifier – the research proposal itself. Proposals that address the health of ethnic and racial minorities are more likely to come from researchers who share the ethnic or racial background of the population they’re studying . Granted, this too includes Asians and Hispanics, whose gaps disappeared when accounting for other factors. Yet I wonder if Black scientists submit more proposals focusing on the health of individuals from their own racial group than their Asian and Hispanic counterparts. If so, then this factor may partially explain why Blacks are less likely to be grant recipients.

Ginther et al. also asserted that maybe applications by Black researchers were of poorer quality. Well, let us suppose for a moment that this is true.  Research has shown that mentoring improves academic performance and  professional success . Quality mentoring is vital in completing this intense, double-digit application. Navigating through the NIH grant website is an exercise in patience, time and perseverance. It is a labyrinth of links, pdf  and word docs, charts, excel spreadsheets, hidden division phone numbers, and other difficult to find resources needed to complete the process.  Climbing the RO1 grant mountain all alone or with an inadequate mentor exacerbates the process. More importantly, it raises the chance of a producing a non-competitive application that is unlikely to be funded and possibly reviewed. These two factors can sap the motivation to resubmit persistently after being rejected.

Who knows which factors are driving these findings.  At any rate, it is disturbing. It validates the talk among Black and minority researchers and graduate students that grants are not doled out fairly. It even heightens suspicions that the research world is uninterested in studies related to minorities, in particular Black people.  What is needed is a more diverse peer review panel. Not only diverse in ethnic and cultural composition, but more so, diverse in research ideas and interests.

Links to the study:


Written by G

August 25, 2011 at 3:11 am

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