On the perceptions of well intentioned people regarding the NIH’s little diversity whoopsie
August 26, 2011
BikeMonkey Guest PostBelieve you me, it does not escape my attention that instead of working on my grant that is due in approx one month’s time, I am talking about the Ginther et al report. No, I am not obligated to say jack squatte about it. These little distractions are optional. As is the mentoring “tax” that the senior author of that report, Raynard Kington, discussed. Likewise participation in the well-intentioned “enhance the diversity” efforts of our Universities and professional societies. Yet…here we are.
The DM has been taking a few whacks at what appears to be the reasonably well-intentioned musings of one Michael Eisen. I am fascinated by the latter’s defensive comment:
But I’m shocked at how many people leapt to the immediate conclusion that the peer review system penalizes applications from black PIs when we know that black scientists face all sorts of other obstacles that both discourage them from entering the field in the first place and make it more difficult for them once they are here. I just felt it was pretty naive on the NIHs part to expect anything different – as if they thought the things they were doing to promote the careers of black scientists had actually solved all the problems they face. And then to look at the data and cry racism is just making the problem even worse by both discouraging black scientists from joining the field and making it harder for them to recruit people once there here.
“leapt to the immediate conclusion“. “cry racism“. Yes, perhaps I should reconsider the “well-intentioned” bit. These are stock in trade phrasings of anti-affirmative action people.
Dr. Eisen has gone astray. If you actually read what the Ginther report chose to look at for their analyses, and barring that read the Tabak and Collins executive summary, it is entirely obvious that these descriptions are inaccurate. The authors went to great lengths to try to address some of the more obvious questions that were only secondarily or tertiarily linked to the race of the PI. Even in the proposals for future study and review, Tabak and Collins bent over backward to cover the “disparities in education and research opportunities” that might be the true causal agent.
So why is it Dr. Eisen’s perception that the NIH went jumping to racial conclusions?
So, if I don’t believe peer review is pervasively racist, but I believe the data in the paper, I have to believe instead that NIH study sections find that grant applications from black scientists are – on average – marginally less impressive than those of their comparably experienced and accomplished white colleagues.
Because his posed theoretical is likely not so theoretical. He is highly invested in the denial of racism in the peer review process. I’d like to point out to him that this may possible conflict with another of his stated goals:
Rather than discouraging aspiring black scientists by portraying a field filled with insurmountable obstacles, we should emphasize that biomedical science offers them the opportunity to be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their R01 application.
If there is one item that is way up there on the list of things that discourage black scientists (right behind the data that illustrate the disparity) it is the reflexive denial by non-blacks that there could possibly be any racism at work. For those who have made their
peace detente with the underlying, long established, subtle and hard to reverse discrimination realities, I’d hazard that this denial is in fact much more of a discouraging stimulus.
Look, I’m not suggesting that the NIH needs to only pursue implicit racial bias in the minds of the study section members. The many goals and hypotheses that are on the table are admirable and have a chance of payoff. But they should not shy away from the possibility that there is bias at the level of peer review either.