New Study: Race, Not Gender, is Key Factor in NIH Funding

ThinkstockPhotos-87671566A new study in Academic Medicine has found that race, not gender, is the most significant factor influencing funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The study, led by University of Kansas economist, Donna Ginther, PhD, demonstrated that women of color were less likely to receive NIH funding compared with Caucasian women.

This research follows Ginther’s 2011 study on “Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Awards”, which showed that Asian and African American applicants were less likely to be awarded NIH research grants than Caucasian peers from similar backgrounds and with similar qualifications regardless of gender. In the current study, Ginther and her colleagues set out to identify possible “double binds”, or additional barriers, that Asian and African American women may face when applying for NIH funding.

Although researchers self-identify race, ethnicity, and gender, on grant applications, this information is removed prior to peer review. Nonetheless, applications may contain biographical features that provide clues to the applicant’s racial or gender identity. Ginther and her colleagues analyzed gender, race, professional degree, and level of experience of R01 awardees from 2000 – 2006.

Study results showed a lower probability of obtaining NIH grant funding among Asian and African American women PhDs and African American women MDs, compared to Caucasian women MDs and PhDs. Caucasian women were also just as likely as Caucasian men to obtain an R01. In fact, the study showed no disadvantage for women when race was not taken into account, suggesting that race/ethnicity plays a larger role than gender in NIH funding disparities.

While gender was not a factor in probability of securing NIH funding, the study reported that women submitted fewer applications and were more likely than men to drop out of the R01 applicant pool after a single, unsuccessful application. These trends are supported by previous studies and may explain why women constitute only about 30% of overall research project grant Principle Investigators (PIs), and only about 20% of NIH research center and small business research program PIs.

While the biomedical research workforce is becoming more diverse, certain racial/ethnic groups, women, and people with disabilities remain underrepresented. In 2010 African Americans comprised 12.6% of the U.S. population, but only accounted for 1.1% of scientists who received research project grants from the NIH. In comparison, Caucasians made up 72.4% of the general population and 71% of the NIH-funded scientists pool.

The findings from this study highlight the importance of addressing the racial gap among NIH awards. Researchers from under-represented populations should be encouraged to take advantage of various NIH mechanisms, such as the National Research Mentoring Network and the Women of Color Research Network, to obtain mentorship and professional development.

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