NIH Blames the Victim

January 16, 2014

Just look at this text from RFA-RM-13-017:

The overarching goal of the Diversity Program Consortium is to enhance the diversity of well-trained biomedical research scientists who can successfully compete for NIH research funding and/or otherwise contribute to the NIH-funded workforce. The BUILD and NRMN initiatives are not intended to support replication or expansion of existing programs at applicant institutions (for example, simply increasing the number of participants in current NIH-funded research training or mentoring programs would not be responsive to this funding announcement).

The three forgoing major initiatives share one thing in common: Make the black PIs better in the future.

The disparity we’ve been talking about? That is clearly all the fault of the current black PIs….they just aren’t up to snuff.

Specifics? also revealing


Goals for the NRMN include the following:

  • Working with the Diversity Program Consortium to establish core competencies and hallmarks of success at each stage of biomedical research careers (i.e., undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral, early career faculty).

  • Developing standards and metrics for effective face-to-face and online mentoring.

  • Connecting students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty in the biomedical research workforce with experienced mentors, including those with NIH funding, both in person and through online networks.

  • Developing innovative strategies for mentoring and testing efficacy of these approaches.

  • Active outreach is expected to be required to draw mentees into the network who otherwise would have limited access to research mentors.

  • Developing innovative and novel methods to teach effective mentoring skills and providing training to individuals who participate as mentors in the NRMN.

  • Providing professional development activities (grant writing seminars, mock study sections, etc.) and biomedical research career “survival” strategies, and/or facilitating participation in existing development opportunities outside the NRMN.

  • Enhancing mentee access to information and perceptions about biomedical research careers and funding opportunities at the NIH and increasing understanding of the requirements and strategies for success in biomedical careers through mentorship.

  • Creating effective networking opportunities for students, postdoctoral fellows, and early career faculty from diverse backgrounds with the larger biomedical research community.

  • Enhancing ability of mentees to attain NIH funding.

To my eye, only one of these comes even slightly close to recognizing that there are biases in the NIH system that work unfairly against underrepresented PIs.

68 Responses to “NIH Blames the Victim”

  1. Lee Says:

    I think, given the complete lack of progress since the Ginther report, the only way to effect change on this issue would be via a clandestine push by Collins. You sum this up in a previous post:

    “It could be so far under the radar (Collins, addressing the IC Directors one on one as he happens across them. “Fix this, ‘kay?” ) nobody would even know what was going on. ”

    No Lengthy study, no bitching masses, no FOIA’able materials, just change.


  2. drugmonkey Says:



  3. This seems completely at odds with the conclusions of the Ginther report, which were that even if you control for all the shit this RFA is suggesting should be improved, minority applicants *still* get the shaft. So yeah, you are totally right that this is blaming the victim. An RFA responsive to the Ginther report would be “We solicit applications seeking to empirically identify grant review processes that eliminate the intrinsic bias of the current system.”


  4. drugmonkey Says:



  5. How, exactly, are minorities- esp those that are 1st generation college students- supposed to compete against kids who were “college-bound” since pre-school in the 80s?

    I know a lot of the college-bound since birth crew- they’re not evil or anything, although many are completely burned out at this stage………. we need to think about the entire American educational strategy, it’s clearly not working on a fairly massive level…….


  6. drugmonkey Says:

    You are falling into the same misdirection, Allison.


  7. hmm? which misdirection? (sorry, writing up a ms, distracted)


  8. drugmonkey Says:

    The blame the victim one


  9. Dr Becca Says:

    Allison – the argument that URMs aren’t as well-funded as white people because they didn’t have the same opportunities or experiences carries the implicit assumption that their applications are genuinely inferior, and thus are in fact being judged fairly on objective merit. In contrast, the Ginther report suggests that there really is bias in the review process, and that is what needs fixing at the level of NIH.


  10. physioprof Says:

    The Ginther report concludes that even if you fix all the disadvantages that URMs bring with them when they submit their grants, they *still* get shafted. So it is completely not a valid response to the Ginther report to propose mechanisms for fixing said disadvantages. Rather, the only on point response to the Ginther report is to propose mechanisms for figuring out why they still get shafted and how to stop it from happening.

    How is this not clear?


  11. @Dr Becca
    you mean overall bias to minority PIs, yes?
    (One weird thing being at Duke: in the cafeteria, only like 3% or so of the students seem to be black people. Meanwhile the cash register people and kitchen staff is almost all black people. It’s a bit odd, seeing as it’s the South and black people are a goodly percentage of the population. O but wait: they’re usually poor, too; the poverty seems starkly divided along racial lines. Hmmmmm.)


  12. PS
    I could be totally wrong about the overall study body racial sub divisions, it’s just what I’ve personally seen in cafeteria etc.


  13. *I meant ‘student body’, there, sorry.
    (gah too many emails, so little time…..)


  14. drugmonkey Says:

    Huh. Yeah that *is* totally weird.


  15. This particular initiative does not address the bias in the peer review process that was highlighted in an NIH sponsored study. [ ] It does not matter how well published, mentored or successful a minority scientist is as long as the grant review process is not changed to reduce eliminate biases.

    Additionally, NIH cannot change faculty search committees. Part of the issues, is that women and ethnic minorities have not reached a critical mass at the postdoc or assistant professor stage at enough institutions.

    What we find is that URMs have to be “twice as good” to get jobs and grants.

    I would like to see the CVs of postdocs applying for faculty positions and assistant professors applying for grants. Further, a comparison of those that get positions and those that do not. I suspect the URMs will be considered to be less competitive event with the same credentials


  16. duke grad Says:

    duke, like many other hyper-privileged asshole training grounds, has a population starkly different from local or national representation.

    so let’s bring in a parallel.

    how do you think the black candidates fare in the admissions process at duke? is it that they don’t have opportunities and as a result don’t make the cut, so future generations may someday do well enough to get in if given said opportunities? does this factor alone fully cover the glaring whiteness roaming dukelandia compared to, say, braggtown in north durham? or could it be that these are factors, and there are additional implicit bias factors also in play?


  17. A way to start correcting this issue would these few things.

    1.) Funding agencies have to push institutions to diversity their non MD/clinician research faculty.

    2.) Make review sessions include more URMs

    3.) Big name/high powered labs have to hire more URM postdocs and help URM trainees move into the network nexus that will help them get jobs.


  18. @duke grad “dukelandia”



    i can see the disparity on my walk into campus for work: 1st, my house, with a lot of black people on the street. then slightly nicer houses, with more white people– looks like postdoc and adjunct territory. then Really Nice houses; right up on East Campus.

    Now, I do Wonder to whom those really Nice houses belong…….


  19. duke grad Says:

    who do you think owns those houses on east? right up until that eastward mugging line toward downtown, i mean.

    but you linger on your n=1 observations. what about the real questions?


  20. “but you linger on your n=1 observations. what about the real questions?”

    yep, you do have a point.
    i think the real question may boil down to politics. but what do i know, i just want a damn Tricorder with multiple pathology sensing capacity. (do not get me started on MRI.)


  21. bam294 Says:

    New theory – there is some drunk/insane dood at the NIH who just has to power out these RFAs like that poor fuckke nut in Lost? 4 8 15 16 23 42 All he’s been doing for the last 23 years is saying ‘make more trainees’. We are inherently biased at all levels? Must make more, better trainees. We don’t have enough jobs? Must make more trainees. Findings to the contrary irrelevant. Data irrelevant. More…..

    Also, I can’t believe I got stuck in purgatory with y’all.


  22. duke grad Says:

    i think you are dodging the real question. think harder.


  23. @duke grad

    There are a lot of Real Questions I have about …. Duke, and the American academic system in general after seeing what the Germans do in terms of funding. (Not perfect, but better than what we got.) I am using other channels to speak of them, however, since I am “just a Kid”.


  24. Question 1: How do you correct issues of these URM PhD applicants making it through grad school level application process only to be culled at the program level?

    Question 2: How do you get folks off search committees that don’t like to hire women because they will have babies and and believe other URMs are affirmative action cases that should not be hired?


  25. Isis the Scientist Says:

    Once upon a time the ladies sued the NIHto correct such disparities..


  26. Dr Becca Says:

    you mean overall bias to minority PIs, yes?

    I mean overall bias against minority PIs.


  27. duke grad Says:

    it’s uncomfortable to ask these questions. i get it. but being a grown up (which, btw, you are) means doing uncomfortable things. it’s your privilege that you can just choose to disengage like this. not everyone has that good fortune.

    think about that. look at the town you live in and the place where you work. you are in an *ideal* place to learn about these factors of inequality, or, you can blow the opportunity.


  28. @Dr Becca
    yes what you said, sorry.

    @duke grad
    are you still talking to me, or white people in general? i’m trying to learn/observe, but i also do have Death to deal with on a spectroscopic level. PS i did not exactly grow up as one of the rich white people, if you take my meaning. but i do recognize i have an advantage, simply bc i am white.


  29. @Isis: Faculty hiring thing still happens. Folks just know to keep their mouths shut.


  30. duke grad Says:


    i am still talking to you specifically. how many more excuses do you have? if you took some of the effort you’ve expended on telling me why you can’t engage on real topics and actually applied it to said real topics, perhaps we would have done more than spin wheels so far.


  31. citizen_sci Says:

    Legal action seems prudent at this point. The economic damages are substantial–in the billions–not to mention the destruction of human and scientific potential.


  32. @duke grad
    ” how many more excuses do you have?”
    huh? for what? commenting on blogs hardly constitutes a JACS.

    ok you’re a duke grad. from which program, exactly, pray tell?


  33. Sometimes university administrators make diversity in hiring a priority and distribute resources (like faculty billets) in ways that serve those priorities. Under such conditions, it’s possible for search committees to get pretty damn serious about looking at how they do searches (to mitigate the effects of their biases and the biases of folks writing letters of recommendation, etc.), and at how to keep mitigating them so that the candidates they work hard to hire flourish, get tenure, and want to stay.

    It doesn’t happen nearly as often as it could (or should), but it does happen. I reckon NIH has the financial heft to help it happen more, if it really is a priority for NIH.


  34. duke grad Says:


    oh look! another diversion.

    *wipes hands*


  35. Stahp Says:

    Dr. Stelling I don’t think you know what you are saying or implying with your comments. They’re offensive. You need to chill.


  36. Jonathan (@jkgoya) Says:

    sorry to jump in late.
    @HeyDrWilson – has your Q1 been addressed? by “program level” are you referring to the specific departments/grad programs as separate from the university admissions office?


  37. bashir Says:

    2.) Make review sessions include more URMs

    Maybe, I dunno if they had some program for early career PIs to sit in on review sessions. Could use that to activity put URM PI’s through the process. Works even if you think the issue is not enough mentoring.

    NIH seems to say way away from anything that could be in any way shape or form construed as affirmative. Even if they do similar things for other groups (ESI’s).


  38. CB Wilson (@HeyDrWilson) Says:

    @DrFreeRide: Public institutions have some mechanisms to diversity. They usually have some obligation to look like the tax payer demographics.

    @jkgoya: You got it.


  39. Jonathan (@jkgoya) Says:

    @bashir – the women i’ve had as mentors have often complained about how many committees they’re asked to be on, and the struggle to try to prioritize which ones they can make a difference on, which ones are a waste of time, and how much they can even do when they are also dealing with all kinds of institutional challenges to productivity. not to say that it doesn’t need to happen (more URM on committees), but there is a tax.


  40. Jonathan (@jkgoya) Says:

    @HeyDrWilson – re Q1, do university admissions offices have much to say about these things? I always thought it was almost entirely up to the departments.


  41. CB Wilson (@HeyDrWilson) Says:

    @bashir: Yeah…Early care PIs that sit on review section learn what got grants dinged. Plus, when they sit on enough study section/review sessions they get a little extra time to get their grants submitted after reviewing grants.

    Being in the room matters if you want to know what will get your grant killed.


  42. CB Wilson (@HeyDrWilson) Says:

    @jkgoya: Diversity officers are usually at public institutions and have some say.


  43. @ Stahp
    i’m just commenting on what i see.
    not entirely sure what you mean, but ok; i’m a bit distracted right now and am probably completely missing something.


  44. CB Wilson (@HeyDrWilson) Says:

    @jkgoya and @bashir: Yeah, the committee thing is crazy at all levels. Folks want you to serve on every URM committee, but never call for financial or other committees that have more power/influential networks.

    I heard a case of a URM grad student org leader that was like “it isn’t my job to recruit minorities, I am here to do science.” Needless to say it didn’t go over so well.


  45. bashir Says:

    Further, as I understand it the review panel program is at the discretion of the Scientific Review Officer (no?). So that person just picks who ever they want amongst many applicants with no real selection criteria other than basic qualifications.



  46. Jonathan (@jkgoya) Says:

    @HeyDrWilson – that’s great. my program (not public) is small but basically well balanced representation-wise (definitely still reflects larger institutional biases, for sure).


  47. Jonathan (@jkgoya) Says:

    As a multiracial gay guy, I was definitely concerned about landing in an environment that wouldn’t get it my way, but it’s not like i’m ever going to see myself reflected in the faculty. i’ve learned to calibrate off the gender and race/ethnicity visibility. point being, i think how recruitment is approached and handled makes a big difference, particularly to URM.


  48. drugmonkey Says:

    Regarding study sections, the CSR *does* have rules to strive for ethnic / racial balance. The panels I’ve served on do okay on this (and the sex and geography criteria). But that doesn’t mean every CSR panel does, I suppose.


  49. drugmonkey Says:

    Bashir- as far as I know, SROs have to have each set of new panelists approved up the chain. Not sure how far. Ad hocs probably not.


  50. CB Wilson (@HeyDrWilson) Says:

    One last thing for the night…Based on some advice and policy, you would think that to get research faculty position one much be publishing exclusively in Science and Nature and will one day be nominated for a Nobel Prize.

    The fact of the matter is that diversity (gender, ethnic, sexual orientation, disability, socioeconomic, etc…) will happen when high level (Deans, Provosts, Academic VPs, etc…) of institutions diversify. People with real actionable power have to make diversity a cause/passion and not just a buzzword.


  51. drugmonkey Says:


    Another thing about NIH and their fear of affirmative action. Originally the early career reviewer program was construed for URM. Guess what? Other people went shutnuts about how it had to be available to white men (basically) and that is what happened. Leaving selection up to the SROs. It takes no leap to see that any SROs that made the initial pushback wouldn’t be so keen to sign up URM people…


  52. CB Wilson (@HeyDrWilson) Says:

    @Drugmonkey: Thanks, for history lesson. This is the stuff that nobody is talking about, which is why we need more scientist, especially URMs, to get into science policy.


  53. Namnezia Says:

    I agree with your points, and I think it was Becca who put it most succintly. However there is another way to look at this. It’s clear that one way to reduce institutional bias is to increase diversity at the faculty level. As we all know there is quite a lot of people that leave academic science at various points along the way, some URMs included. Having these mentored fellowships targeted at minorities might not necessarily mean that we need to make minority faculty *better* but rather as a mechanism to increase retention of minorities during the long trainting process, and thus ensure that the overall faculty pool is diversified.


  54. Juniper Says:

    People, including me, fear talking about affirmative action because the harm done by today’s racial bias can’t be explained to an audience who reviles complexity. To explain how you have been harmed by racial bias, you have to talk about an accumulation of day-to-day experiences covering the whole spectrum of severity that arguably have to do with your race. Now that there are at least no laws officially proclaiming your race to be subhuman, that’s always going to be arguable. So you have to talk about psychology and culture, too. At which point people usually just tell you to suck that up–even if that’s all you spend your time trying to do– and lose all interest in problems caused for everyone by the bias because they think the bias is your own issue in the first place. It’s a competition, for some reason, and you lost.

    You’ve got Tweets in your feed talking about how people just can’t see that sex and race are just like political affiliation, DM. I’m just saying.


  55. drugmonkey Says:

    Hank Campbell is a known troll and idiot Juniper, don’t know that I’d pay him much mind.

    CBW- it was only like 2 years ago that they started the early career reviewer program! Not history! And fwiw it was pissed off majority culture SROs that told me the back story so it isn’t as if there isn’t good will without minority representation.

    Namnezia- while you are not wrong that more retention would be better, I return to my observation. Exclusively focusing on pipeline issues is saying two things. That if we only had *some other* minorities in the business this would solve the problem because 2) clearly the current ones *are* inferior and deserve the NIH grant outcome described by Ginther.


  56. anonymous postdoc Says:

    I want to thank you for continuing to push this issue, DM. I hear there are nih program people who read your blog, not just Jeremy Berg*, so these things may not entirely fall on deaf ears. And there are real life excellent scientists who are getting screwed over day-to-day in competition with mediocre gringos.

    Whiteness and maleness, especially in combination, is like the pat of butter you add to pasta sauce at the end of cooking – makes everything taste better and more skillful, seem important because what white dudes are interested in is inherently important, even if it’s actually the science** equivalent of tuna helper.

    *Jeremy Berg is a class act and I find myself wishing he was still with nih.

    **or name a field of human endeavor.


  57. odyssey Says:

    Here’s some data from the NSF to add into the mix.


  58. Coquinegra Says:

    Boy I wish I had seen this discussion yesterday!!!
    I finally left the academy after 10 years of working like a pack mule (the only “diversity” in my department) preceded by 6 years of postdoctoral fellowship.
    I was on ALL the committees, responsible for 7 classes, the MS program and expected to bring in funding as well.
    Oh, did I mention NO MENTORSHIP available for me? Minority funding was there which essentially meant this: get hired, PI applies for funding based on your URM status…switches you to minority money, hires white man with your salary money and mentors “him”.

    Yeah. It’s the mentorship that kills you. Until someone successful in this horrible climate really makes you a priority (i.e., sees themselves in you- Black/Brown face and all), the game was not meant to include you and will not bend to you. In fact, you’ll be seen as “a problem”.


  59. dsks Says:

    “Namnezia- while you are not wrong that more retention would be better, I return to my observation. Exclusively focusing on pipeline issues is saying two things. That if we only had *some other* minorities in the business this would solve the problem because 2) clearly the current ones *are* inferior and deserve the NIH grant outcome described by Ginther.”

    Yes, it need to be emphasized – in bold, neon, italics – that Ginther highlights ethnic bias shenanigans during the peer review process itself, separate from the multitude of additional indirect ethnic bias that comes about due to socio-cultural norms, networking, lack of existing representation, &c, &c that hamper an URM’s competitiveness in soliciting federal funding.

    Juniper is generally right that folk do have a hard time engaging in these sorts of topics if they appear to be too complicated and nuanced, but the irony here is that the people responding to Ginther are immediately jumping to the more complicated conclusion rather than what is in this case a fairly simple and straightforward one.

    My question is, What next? The problem seems to have presented itself with some clarity and, notwithstanding the legal niceties that Jeremy Berg alluded to and that can be looked into, DM’s proposal in the last post seems pretty reasonable. Is there anything we can do from up here in the cheap seats to force some consideration of this idea at the NIH?


  60. becca Says:

    Pay underrepresented minorities for their work on study sections, and give an ESI type of boost to the grants of underrepresented minorities do sit on study sections grants. Require male whites and Asians to pay to sit on study section. Then hire more underrepresented minority SROs.


  61. drugmonkey Says:

    Of course there is, dsks. The simplest thing is to make precisely these comments at the rock talk blog. Over and over and over.
    Link to Ginther on your Fb and blog and Twitter. Over and over and over.

    Go to the sessions with NIH reps at meetings and ask how the response to Ginther is coming along.

    Over, and over….and over.


  62. SteveTodd Says:

    *begin satire*

    Separate but equal study sections! Your grant gets judged by a group of your peers that look exactly like you. Hard to be biased there. As long as we agree that the bias usually starts with WhiteDudes then this should “fix” the problem.

    Hello there old, male, white professors of this study section. You all have your proposals only from other WhiteDudes. Here is your pot of money, go for it.

    Hey LadyScientists, same as the old guys, good luck.

    Welcome URMs, you now get as much money as the WhiteDudes and LadyScientists to dole out to only other URM proposals.

    *end satire*


  63. anonymous postdoc Says:

    That sure was cutting satire. Thank goodness we have SteveTodd here to show us, by reducto ad absurdum, that URM is a misnomer for UDM, or undeserving minority. Otherwise the thought of offering people proportional funding wouldn’t be so HILARIOUS.


  64. drugmonkey Says:

    Why do I think that if Well Represented types were reviewed by panels made up of other-than-them that the screaming and crying about review bias would be deafening?


  65. Monisha Says:

    It’s worth pointing out that mere representation of URM on review panels, though it is extremely important, may not serve to correct biases in the review process – social psychological work shows gender biased reviewing of applicants (based on varying only an applicant’s name while leaving all credentials equal), but also suggests that such biases are evident in evaluations made by male and female reviewers. Assuming that generalizes to the review of grants (and in fact, this being not my own research area, it’s very very very likely that these findings have already been extended to URM and grant review situations in existing research), fully addressing the findings of the Ginther report really does require NIH to fund actual research on review PROCESSES that reduce biases.


  66. anonymous Says:

    @CB Wilson Issue isn’t that there aren’t minorities in science policy–NIH staff are fairly diverse. It’s the people making the decisions. . At the end of the day, the IC directors and other political types are the ones who hold funding power at the NIH. That said, mid-level staff do have power in what research is brought to their attention and what research is being highlighted.

    @drugmonkey Lobbying program officers at conferences is the most inefficient way to put pressure on the NIH. You need to talk to people with power.


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