On targeting NIH funding opportunities to URMs: The Lauer edition

January 28, 2021

I have long standing doubts about certain aspects of funding mechanisms that are targeted to underrepresented individuals. This almost always has come up in the past in the context of graduate or postdoctoral fellowships and when there is a FOA open to all, and a related or parallel FOA that is directed explicitly at underrepresented individuals. For example see NINDS F31, K99/R00 , NIGMS K99/R00 initiatives, and there is actually a NIH parent F32 – diversity as well).

At first blush, this looks awesome! Targeted opportunity, presumably grant panel review that gives some minimal attention to the merits of the FOA and, again presumably, some Program traction to fund at least a few.

My Grinchy old heart is, however, suspicious about the real opportunity here. Perhaps more importantly, I am concerned about the real opportunity versus the opportunity that might be provided by eliminating any disparity of review that exists for the review of applications that come in via the un-targeted FOA. No matter the FOA, the review of NIH grants is competitive and zero sum. Sure, pools of money can be shifted from one program to another (say from the regular F31 to the F31-diversity) but it is rarely the case there is any new money coming in. Arguing about the degree to which funding is targeted by decision of Congress, of the NIH Director, of IC Directors or any associated Advisory Councils is a distraction. Sure NIGMS gets a PR hit from announcing and funding some MOSAIC K99/R00 awards…but they could just use those moneys to fund the apps coming in through their existing call that happen to have PIs who are underrepresented in science.

The extreme example here is the highly competitive K99 application from a URM postdoc. If it goes in to the regular competition, it is so good that it wins an award and displaces, statistically, a less-meritorious one that happens to have a white PI. If it goes in to the MOSAIC competition, it also gets selected, but in this case by displacing a less-meritorious one that happens to have a URM PI. Guaranteed.

These special FOA have the tendency to put all the URM in competition with each other. This is true whether they would be competitive against the biased review of the regular FOA or, more subtly, whether they would be competitive for funding in a regular FOA review that had been made bias-free(r).

I was listening to a presentation from Professor Nick Gilpin today on his thoughts on the whole Ginther/Hoppe situation (see his Feature at eLife with Mike Taffe) and was struck by comments on the Lauer pre-print. Mike Lauer, head of NIH’s office of extramural awards, blogged and pre-printed an analysis of how the success rates at various NIH ICs may influence the funding rate for AA/B PIs. It will not surprise you that this was yet another attempt to suggest it was AA/B PIs’ fault that they suffer a funding disparity. For the sample of grants reviewed by Lauer (from the Hoppe sample), 2% were submitted with AA/B PIs, NIH-wide. The percentage submitted to the 19 individual funding ICs he covered ranged from 0.73% to 14.7%. This latter institute was the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD). Other notable ICs of disproportionate relevance to the grants submitted with AA/B PIs include NINR (4.6% AA/B applications) and NICHD (3%).

So what struck me, as I listened to Nick’s take on these data, is that this is the IC assignment version of the targeted FOA. It puts applications with AA/B investigators in higher competition with each other. “Yeahbutt”, you say. It is not comparable. Because there is no open competition version of the IC assignment.

Oh no? Of course there is, particularly when it comes to NIMHD. Because these grants will very often look like a grant right down the center of those of interest to the larger, topic-focused ICs….save that it is relevant to a population considered to be minority or suffering a health disparity. Seriously, go to RePORTER and look at new NIMHD R01s. Or heck, NIMHD is small enough you can look at the out year NIMHD R01s without breaking your brain since NIHMH only gets about 0.8% of the NIH budget allocation. With a judicious eye to topics, some related searches across ICs, and some clicking on the PI names to see what else they may have as funded grants, you can quickly convince yourself that plenty of NIMHD awards could easily be funded by a related I or C with their much larger budgets*. Perhaps the contrary is also true, grants funded by the parent / topic IC which you might also argue would fit at NIMHD, but I bet the relative percentage goes the first way.

If I am right in my suspicions, the existence of NIMHD does not necessarily put more aggregate money into health disparities research. That is, more than that which could just as easily come out of the “regular” budget. The existence of NIMHD means that the parent IC can shrug off their responsibility for minority health issues or disparity issues within their primary domains of drug abuse, cancer, mental health, alcoholism or what have you. Which means they are likewise shrugging off the AA/B investigators who are disproportionately submitting applications with those NIMHD-relevant topics and being put in sharp competition with each other. Competition not just within a health domain, but across all health domains covered by the NIH.

It just seems to me that putting the applications with Black PIs preferentially in competition with themselves, as opposed to making it a fair competition for the entire pool of money allocated to the purpose, is sub optimal.

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*Check out the descriptions for MD010362 and CA224537 for some idea of what I mean. The entire NIMHD budget is 5% as large as the NCI budget. Why, you might ask, is NCI not picking up this one as well?

2 Responses to “On targeting NIH funding opportunities to URMs: The Lauer edition”

  1. GrantGuru Says:

    Excellent point about the problem of diversity FOAs putting URM applicants in competition with each other in a zero-sum funding environment. I’ve seen this at play in diversity F31 funding results.

    P.S. Your link in the first paragraph is to an old version of the diversity parent F31, PA-19-196. (There is no diversity F32.)

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  2. […] First, URM-only opportunities have a tendency to put minority applicants in competition with each other. Conceptually, suppose there is an excellent URM qualified proposal that gets really high priority scores from study section and presume it would have also done so in an open, representation-blind study section. This one now displaces another URM proposal in the special call and *fails to displace* a lesser proposal from (statistically probable) a majoritarian PI. That’s less good than fixing the bias in the first place so that all open competitions are actually open and fair. I mentioned this before: […]

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