The NIH seeks input on diversity and representation

January 11, 2012

Remember the Ginther et al. (2011) report on NIH Grant awards to Principal Investigators sorted by race and ethnicity? The one that showed African-American PIs suffered worse success rates even when controlling for a number of obvious potential contributing factors?

A new Notice (NIH-OD-12-031) seeks input on diversity in the NIH system.

The critical background:

The Advisory Committee to the NIH Director (ACD) has established a working group to examine diversity in the biomedical research workforce (see for charge and roster) and provide concrete recommendations to the ACD and the NIH Director on ways to enhance diversity throughout the various research career stages, particularly with regard to underrepresented minorities, persons with disabilities, and persons from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Working Group on Diversity in the Biomedical Research Workforce has considered the evidence presented in “Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Awards” published in the August 2011 edition of Science and additional data provided by the NIH. This data shows that R01 applications from Black or African American PhD applicants between 2000 and 2006 did significantly worse than those applications from White applicants, even after controlling for observable characteristics. The article and a corresponding policy piece by NIH Director Francis Collins and NIH Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak can be found at

I offered solutions before, after expressing skepticism about the Advisory Panel approach.

Now it is time for all of us to offer our insight and possible solutions (or reasons why this is a non problem) to the Working Group.

UPDATE: The CPDD Blog review of the recent ACNP meeting notes that a question was asked about this situation in a session featuring a number of NIH IC representatives. Insel, NIMH Director, polled the crowd as to how many people knew what the Ginther report found. There were probably less than 5 hands raised that I could see. I’m not great at room estimates but there were easily over a hundred folks sitting there, probably less than 200. Folks who bothered to attend a session from NIH representatives so likely people with more than average interest in NIH matters.

For your convenience, a few links from last August when this arose:

Sally Rockey, Office of Extramural Research
Tom Insel, NIMH
Chronicle of Higher Ed
National Public Radio

No Responses Yet to “The NIH seeks input on diversity and representation”

  1. Bashir Says:

    Duly noted.


  2. drugmonkey Says:

    And another link to another post from Bashir on the topic. Where he asks, Is it just the “same shit, different day”?

    It may be. But that doesn’t mean it is not still worth taking your shots when the opportunity arises. I’ve been encouraging people to respond to these NIH RFIs for some time now. I am always surprised that they get maybe a few hundred responses out of the what, tens to hundreds of thousands of interested parties? Good time to leverage your effort, if you bother to comment….


  3. Zuska Says:

    From the Chronicle of Higher Ed article,

    The director also pledged new studies of the NIH’s processes for reviewing its grant applications, including tests of whether approval rates might change if officials made a deliberate effort to remove all indications of an applicant’s race from applications.

    Wow, I wonder too! All the bla bla after that about how they don’t have enough black reviewers and it’s a circular problem and all is weak – underrepresented groups can be as susceptible to subtle bias against their group members as people from the dominant group. I mean, until you get to the real tipping point of representation I don’t think it’s going to make a huge difference. And/or completely change societal attitudes about race.

    Review the science first – is it the science good? Is it in an area/direction we’ve prioritized? Yes? Okay, now, does this person have the ability to carry it out? That means looking at institutional affiliation and resources, training, etc. But get to that info after evaluating the science, so it doesn’t bias you. Even that info might need to be broken out and presented in stages with some identifying bits disguised. Otherwise you’ll keep filling your orchestra with white dudes who look like you but really aren’t the best oboe players available.


  4. a.w.e. Says:

    I’m on the market a.t.m. and I’ve had several discussions with my mentor lately on how to stay funded (he’s done very well over the years). He said you really need an advocate on the review panel. Most grants that come up for review are excellent, so the key is for people to know you or know of you. I suspect that aside from subtle (or not so subtle) biases in the reviews, under-represented groups don’t have the scientific network that would get them a voice in the room. Thoughts?


  5. Grumble Says:

    That’s exactly what I think, a.w.e. I *don’t* think the lower success rate among black applicants is because of racism by reviewers and other deciders at NIH. I think it’s because the grant application and review process is a complex social game, at which a larger proportion of black applicants is at a disadvantage. If, compared with non-blacks, more black applicants come from institutions that receive less NIH funding and have fewer grant reviewers on NIH study sections, then those applicants will not have as many (or as strong) advocates on the review panels.

    As you point out, a.w.e., absence of reviewer advocates who know you personally is, nowadays, fatal to your grant application. If this is even part of the real reason why blacks are underfunded, then what NIH needs to change is a seriously flawed and broken review process. I suspect, however, that instead of trying to solve the real problem, it is going to waste a lot of hot air trying to figure out what to do about a racism bugaboo that doesn’t actually exist.


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