November 23, 2015

In the past few weeks I have been present for the following conversation topics.

1) A tech professional working for the military complaining about some failure on the part of TSA to appropriately respect his SuperNotATerrorist pass that was supposed to let him board aircraft unmolested…unlike the the rest of us riff raff. I believe having his luggage searched in secondary was mentioned, and some other delays of minor note. This guy is maybe early thirties, very white, very distinct regional American accent, good looking, clean cut… your basic All-American dude.

2) A young guy, fresh out of the military looking to get on with one of the uniformed regional service squad types of jobs. This conversation involved his assertions that you had to be either a woman or an ethnic minority to have a shot at the limited number of jobs available in any given cycle. Much of the usual complaining about how this was unfair and it should be about “merit” and the like. Naturally this guy is white, clean cut, relatively well spoken…. perhaps not all that bright, I guess.

3) A pair of essentially the most privileged people I know- mid-adult, very smart, blonde, well educated, upper middle class, attractive, assertive, parents, rock of community type of women. Literally *everything* goes in these women’s direction and has for most of their lives. They had the nerve to engage in a long running conversation about their respective minor traffic stops and tickets and how unfair it was. How the cops should have been stopping the “real” dangers to society at some other location instead of nailing them for running a stop sign a little too much or right on red-ing or whatever their minor ticket was for.

One of the great things about modern social media is that, done right, it is a relatively non-confrontational way to start to see how other people view things. For me the days of reading science blogs and the women-in-academics blogs were a more personal version of some of the coursework I enjoyed in my liberal arts undergraduate education. It put me in touch with much of the thinking and experiences of women in my approximate career. It occasionally allowed me to view life events with a different lens than I had previously.

It is my belief that social media has also been important for driving the falling dominoes of public opinion on gay marriage over the past decade or so. Facebook connections to friends, family and friends of the same provides a weekly? daily? reminder that each of us know a lot of gay folks that are important to us or at the very least are important to people that are important to us.

The relentless circulation of memes and Bingo cards, of snark and hilarity alike, remind each of us that there is a viewpoint other than our own.

And the decent people listen. Occasionally they start to see things the way other people do. At least now and again.

The so-called Black Twitter is similar in the way it penetrated the Facebook and especially Twitter timelines and daily RTs of so many non-AfricanAmerican folks . I have watched this develop during Ferguson and through BlackLivesMatter and after shooting after shooting after shooting of young black people that has occurred in the past two years.

During the three incidents that I mention, all I could think was “Wow, do you have any idea that this is the daily reality for many of your fellow citizens? And that it would hardly ever occur to non-white people to be so blindly outraged that the world should dare to treat them this way?” And “Wait, so are you saying it sucks to have a less-assured chance of gaining the career benefits you want due to the color of your skin or the nature of your dangly bits….it’ll come to you in a minute”.

This brings me to today’s topic in academic science.

Nature News has an editorial on racial disparity in NIH grant awards. As a reminder the Ginther report was published in 2011. There are slightly new data out, generated from a FOIA request:

Pulmonologist Esteban Burchard and epidemiologist Sam Oh of the University of California, San Francisco, shared the data with Nature after obtaining them from the NIH through a request under the Freedom of Information Act. The figures show that under-represented minorities have been awarded NIH grants at 78–90% the rate of white and mixed-race applicants every year from 1985 to 2013

I will note that Burchard and Oh seem to be very interested in how the failure to include a diverse population in scientific studies may limit health care equality. So this isn’t just about career disparity for these scientists, it is about their discipline and the health outcomes that result. Nevertheless, the point of these data are that under-represented minority PIs have less funding success than do white PIs. The gap has been a consistent feature of the NIH landscape through thick and thin budgets. Most importantly, it has not budged one bit in the wake of the Ginther report in 2011. With that said, I’m not entirely sure what we have learned here. The power of Ginther was that it went into tremendous analytic detail trying to rebut or explain the gross disparity with all of the usual suspect rationales. Trying….and failing. The end result of Ginther was that it was very difficult to make the basic disparate finding go away by considering other mediating variables.

After controlling for the applicant’s educational background, country of origin, training, previous research awards, publication record, and employer characteristics, we find that black applicants remain 10 percentage points less likely than whites to be awarded NIH research funding.

The Ginther report used NIH grant data between FY 2000 and FY 2006. This new data set appears to run from 1985 to 2013, but of course only gives the aggregate funding success rate (i.e. the per-investigator rate), without looking at sub-groups within the under-represented minority pool. This leaves a big old door open for comments like this one:

Is it that the NIH requires people to state their race on their applications or could it be that the black applications were just not as good? Maybe if they just keep the applicant race off the paperwork they would be able to figure this out.

and this one:

I have served on many NIH study sections (peer review panels) and, with the exception of applicants with asian names, have never been aware of the race of the applicants whose grants I’ve reviewed. So, it is possible that I could have been biased for or against asian applicants, but not black applicants. Do other people have a different experience?

This one received an immediate smackdown with which I concur entirely:

That is strange. Usually a reviewer is at least somewhat familiar with applicants whose proposals he is reviewing, working in the same field and having attended the same conferences. Are you saying that you did not personally know any of the applicants? Black PIs are such a rarity that I find it hard to believe that a black scientist could remain anonymous among his or her peers for too long.

Back to social media. One of the tweeps who is, I think, pretty out as an underrepresented minority of science had this to say:

Not entirely sure it was in response to this Nature editorial but the sentiment fits. If AfricanAmerican PIs who are submitting grants to the NIH after the Ginther report was published in the late summer of 2011 (approximately 13 funding rounds ago, by my calendar) were expecting the kind of relief provided immediately to ESI PIs…..well, they are still looking in the mailbox.

The editorial

The big task now is to determine why racial funding disparities arise, and how to erase them. …The NIH is working on some aspects of the issue — for instance, its National Research Mentoring Network aims to foster diversity through mentoring.

and the News piece:

in response to Kington’s 2011 paper, the NIH has allocated more than $500 million to programmes to evaluate how to attract, mentor and retain minority researchers. The agency is also studying biases that might affect peer review, and is interested in gathering data on whether a diverse workforce improves science.

remind us of the entirely toothless NIH response to Ginther.

It is part and parcel of the vignettes I related at the top. People of privilege simply cannot see the privileges they enjoy for what they are. Unless they are listening. Listening to the people who do not share the set of privileges under discussion.

I think social media helps with that. It helps me to see things through the eyes of people who are not like me and do not have my particular constellations of privileges. I hope even certain Twitter-refuseniks will come to see this one day.