Fairness in NIH grant review panels, in two Twitter polls

June 16, 2020

The NIH rules on empaneling reviewers on study sections says right at the top under General Requirements:

There must be diversity with respect to the geographic distribution, gender, race, and ethnicity of the membership.

You will notice that it does not specify any specific diversity targets. One handy older report that I had long ago, lost and then found again is called the CSR Data Book, FY 2004 and it is dated 5/23/2005. Among other details, Table 16 shows that the from 2000-2004 the percent of female reviewers appointed to panels went 27.0%, 25.8%, 28.2%, 31.1%, 32.9%. The percent of non-standing (ad hocs and SEP participation) went 24.5%, 25.7%, 25.2%, 24.4%, 24.9%. That’s good enough for now, feel free to chase down any more recent stats, I’m sure they are in the NIH site somewhere.

My dumb little twitter poll showed that 35.3% of people that had an opinion thought that the NIH’s apparent female reviewer target was about right. I assert that they probably arrive at their target based on what they think is the fraction of their target population (STEM profs? Biomed profs? NIH applicants?). Who knows but I bet whatever it is, it is below the population representation. Some 59.9% of those that offered an opinion thought that the ~population target was about right.

It isn’t in that older document, but Hoppe et al do report in Table S10 that 2.4% of reviewers for all study sections that evaluated R01s were African-American while 77.8% were white. As a reminder, about 14% of Americans are Black if you include those that check other boxes as multi-racial, 12.4% if you do not.

We can see from this that of the responses offered, 12.7% thought there should be fewer Black reviewers than their are (or roughly the same), some 19% thought it should be about the proportion of Black Professors in STEM fields and 68.3% thought it should more or less match the population level.

There is a serious disconnect between the opinion of the dumb little twitter poll of those that follow me on Twitter and what CSR is targeting as being “diverse with respect to…gender, race“.

Now, admittedly I have been preparing the field of battle for two weeks at this point, years by some reckonings. Softening them up. Carpet bombing with Ginther napalm and Hoppe munitions. So this is by no means a random sample. This is a sample groomed to be at least aware of NIH funding disparity and a sample subjected to an awful lot of my viewpoint that this is a massive failure of the NIH that needs to be corrected.

But still, I think some direct questions are in order. So next time you are talking to your favorite SRO, maybe ask them about this.

See if you can get them to admit to the targets that are discussed inside CSR.

Offer your own opinion on what target they should be using.

One interesting little point. I posted these polls only an hour apart and flogged both of them a couple of times later in the day. I actually pinned the second one which should give it slightly more visibility, if anything.

405 people offered an opinion on the question about African-American reviewers and 689 on the second one. The gender one got 4 RTs (which might boost reach) and the racial one got 2. The “no opinion” vote was 98 for the racial question and 107 for the gender poll so apparently the looky-loo portion of the samples is ~the same number of people.

I find this to be pertinent to the miasma of institutional injustice that we are discussing of late.

One Response to “Fairness in NIH grant review panels, in two Twitter polls”

  1. A science nerd Says:

    There are no targets discussed


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