I recently fielded a question from a more junior scientist about what, I think, has been termed research colonialism with specificity to the NIH funding disparity known as the Ginther Gap. One of the outcomes of the Hoppe et al 2019 paper, and the following Lauer et al 2021, was a call for a hard look at research on the health issues of communities of color. How successful are grant proposals on those topics, which ICs are funding them, what are the success rates and what are the budget levels appropriated to, e.g. the NIMHD. I am very much at sea trying to answer the question I was asked, which boiled down to “Why is it always majoritarian PIs being funded to do research with communities of color?”. I really don’t know how to answer that or how to begin to address it with NIH funding data that has been generated so far. However, something came across my transom recently that is a place to start.

The NIH issued RFA-MD-21-004 Understanding and Addressing the Impact of Structural Racism and Discrimination on Minority Health and Health Disparities last year and the resulting projects should be on the RePORTER books by now. I was cued into this by a tweet from the Constellation Project which is something doing co-author networks. That may be useful for a related issue, that of collaboration and co-work. For now, I’m curious about what types of PIs have been able to secure funding from this mechanism. According to my RePORTER search for the RFA, there are currently 17 grants funded.

Of the funded grants, there are 4 from NIMHD, 4 from NIDA, 2 from NIA, 1 each from NIMH, NIHNDS, NINR, NICHD, NIGMS, NIDCD, and NCCIH. In the RFA, NIMHD promised 6-7 awards, NIDA 2, NIA 6, NIGMS 4-6 so obviously NIDA overshot their mark, but the rest are slacking. One each was promised for NIMH, NINDS, NICHD, NIDCD and NCCIH, so all of these are on track. Perhaps we will see a few more grants get funded by the time the FY elapses on Sept 30.

So who is getting funded under this RFA? Doing a quick google on the PIs, and admittedly making some huge assumptions based on the available pictures, I come up with

PI/Multi-PI Contact: White woman (2 NIA; 1 NCCIH; 3 NIDA; 1 NIDCD; 1 NIGMS; 1 NINDS); Black woman (1 NIDA; 1 NICHD; 1 NIMHD); Asian woman (1 NIMHD; 1 NIMHD; 1 NINR); White man (1 NIMHD; 1 NIMH)

Multi-PI, non-contact: Asian woman (1 NIA, 1 NIDA, 1 NIMHD); Black woman (2 NIDA, 1 NIMHD); White woman (1 NIDCD; 1 NIGMS; 1 NINR) Black man (1 NIGMS; 1 NIMH); White man (2 NIMH)

I would say the place I am most likely to be off in terms of someone who appears to me to be white but identifies as a person of color would be white women. Maybe 2-3 I am unsure of. I didn’t bother to keep track of how many of the non-contact PIs are on the proposals with white Contact PIs versus the other way around but….I can’t recall seeing even one where a non-contact white PI was on a proposal with a contact PI who is Black or Asian. (There was one award with three white men and one Black man as PIs and, well, does anyone get away with a four PI list that includes no woman anymore?) Anyway… make of that what you will.

I suspect that this RFA outcome is probably slightly better than the usual? And that if you looked at NIH’s studies that deal with communities or color and/or their health concerns more generally it would be even more skewed towards white PIs?

Ginther et al 2011 reported 69.9% of apps in their sample had white PIs, 16.2% had Asian PIs and 1.4% had Black PIs. Hoppe et al 2019 reported (Table S1) 1.5% of applications had Black PIs and 65.7% had white PIs in their original sample. So the 11 out of 17 grants having white PIs/Contact MultiPIs matches expected distribution, as does 3 Asian PIs. Black PIs are over represented since 1-2% of 17 is..zero grants funded. So this was not an opportunity that NIH took to redress the Ginther Gap.

But should it be? What should be the identity of PIs funded to work on issues related to “racism and discrimination” as it applies to “minority health and health disparities”? The “best” as determined by a study section of peer scientists, regardless of applicant characteristics? Regardless of the by now very well established bias against applications with Black PIs?

Someone on twitter asked about the panel that reviewed these grants. You can see from the funded grants on RePORTER that the study section reviewing these proposals was ZMD1 KNL (J1). Do a little web searching and you find that the roster for the 11/15/2021-11/17/2021 meeting is available. A three day meeting. That must have been painful. There are four chairs and a huge roster listed. I’m not going to search out all of them to figure out how many were white on the review panel. I will note that three of the four chairs were white and one was Asian (three of four were MDs, one was a PHD). This is a good place for a reminder that Hoppe et al reported 2.4% of reviewers were Black and 77.8% white in the study sections reviewing proposals for funding in FY2011-2015. I would be surprised if this study section was anything other than majority white.

NIDA, NIMH, and NINDS have issued a Program Announcement (PAR-22-181) to provide Research Opportunities for New and “At-Risk” Investigators with the intent to Promote Workforce Diversity.

This is issued as a PAR, which is presumably to allow Special Emphasis Panels to be convened. It is not a PAS, however, the announcement includes set-aside funding language familiar to PAS and RFA Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOA).

Funds Available and Anticipated Number of Awards The following NIH components intend to commit the following amounts for the duration of this PAR: NINDS intends to commit up to $10 million per fiscal year, approximately 25 awards, dependent on award amounts; NIDA intends to commit up to $5 million per fiscal year, 12-15 awards, dependent on award amounts; NIMH intends to commit up to $5 million per fiscal year, 12-15 awards, dependent on award amounts; Future year amounts will depend on annual appropriations.

This is a PA typical 3 year FOA which expires June 7, 2025. Reciept dates are one month ahead of standard, i.e., Sept (new R01) / Oct (Resub, Rev, Renew); Jan/Feb; May/Jun for the respective Cycles.

Eligibility is in the standard categories of concern including A) Underrepresented Racial/Ethnic groups, B) Disability, C) economic disadvantage and D) women. Topics of proposal have to be within the usual scope of the participating ICs. Eligibility of PIs is for the familiar New Investigators (“has not competed successfully for substantial, NIH (sic) independent funding from NIH“) and a relatively new “at risk” category.

At risk is defined as “has had prior support as a Principal Investigator on a substantial independent research award and, unless successful in securing a substantial research grant award in the current fiscal year, will have no substantial research grant funding in the following fiscal year.

So. We have an offset deadline (at least for new proposals), set aside funds, SEPs for review and inclusion of NI (instead of merely ESI) and the potential for the more experienced investigator who is out of funding to get help as well. Pretty good! Thumbs up. Can’t wait to see other ICs jump on board this one.

To answer your first question, no, I have no idea how this differs from the NINDS/NIDA/NIAAA NOSI debacle. As a reminder:

Notice NOT-NS-21-049 Notice of Special Interest (NOSI): NIH Research Project Grant (R01) Applications from Individuals from Diverse Backgrounds, Including Under-Represented Minorities was released on May 3, 2021.

The “debacle” part is that right after NIDA and NIAAA joined NINDS in this NOSI, the Office of the Director put it about that no more ICs could join in and forced a rescinding of the NOSI on October 25, 2021 while claiming that their standard issue statement on diversity accomplished the same goals.

I see nothing in this new PAR that addresses either of the two real reasons that may have prompted the Office of the Director to rescind the original NOSI. The first and most likely reason is NIH’s fear of right wing, anti-affirmative action, pro-white supremacy forces in Congress attacking them. The second reason would be people in high places* in the NIH that are themselves right wing, anti-affirmative action and pro-white supremacy. If anything, the NOSI was much less triggering since it came with no specific plans of action or guarantees of funding. The PAR, with the notification of intended awards, is much more specific and would seemingly be even more offensive to right wingers.

I do have two concerns with this approach, as much as I like the idea.

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:

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). […] 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.

The second concern is one I’ve also described before.

In a news piece by Jocelyn Kaiser, the prior NIH Director Elias Zerhouni was quoted saying that study sections responded to his 2006/2007 ESI push by “punishing the young investigators with bad scores”. As I have tried to explain numerous times, phrasing this as a matter of malign intent on the part of study section members is a mistake. While it may be true that many reviewers opposed the idea that ESI applicants should get special breaks, adjusting scores to keep the ESI application at the same chances as before Zerhouni’s policies took effect is just a special case of a more general phenomenon.

So, while this PAR is a great tactical act, we must be very vigilant for the strategic, long term concerns. It seems to me very unlikely that there will be enthusiasm for enshrining this approach for decades (forever?) like the ESI breaks on merit scores/percentiles/paylines. And this approach means it will not be applied by default to all qualifying applications, as is the case for ESI.

Then we get to the Oppression Olympics, an unfortunate pitting of the crabs in the barrel against each other. The A-D categories of under-representation and diversity span quite a range of PIs. People in each category, or those who are concerned about specific categories, are going to have different views on who should be prioritized. As you are well aware, Dear Reader, my primary concern is with the Ginther gap. As you are aware, the “antis” and some pro-diversity types are very concerned to establish that a specific person who identifies as African-American has been discriminated against and is vewwwwy angweee to see any help being extended to anyone of apparent socio-economic privileges who just so happens to be Black. Such as the Obama daughters. None of us are clean on this. Take Category C. I have relatively recently realized that I qualify under Category C since I tick three of the elements, only two are required. I do not think that there is any possible way that my qualification on these three items affects my grant success in the least. To do so would require a lot of supposing and handwaving. I don’t personally think that anyone like me who qualifies technically under Category C really should be prioritized against, say, the demonstrated issue with the Ginther gap. These are but examples of the sort of “who is most disadvantaged and therefore most deserving” disagreement that I think may be a problem for this approach.

Why? Because reviewers will know that this is the FOA they are reviewing under. Opinions on the relative representation of categories A-D, Oppression Olympics and the pernicious stanning of “two-fers” will be front and present. Probably explicit in some reviews. And I think this is a problem in the broader goals of improving equity of opportunity and in playing for robust retention of individuals in the NIH funded research game.

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*This is going to have really ugly implications for the prior head of the NIH, Francis Collins, if the PAR is not rescinded from the top and the only obvious difference here is his departure from NIH.

Way back in 2015 the NIH made some major changes to the Biosketch. As detailed in this post, one of the major changes was replacing the long list of publications with a “contribution to science” section which was supposed to detail up to five areas of focus with up to four papers, or other research products, cited for each contribution. Some of the preamble from NIH on this suggests it was supposed to be an anti-Glamour measure. Sure. There was also an inclusion of a “personal statement” which was supposed to be used to further brag on your expertise as well as to explain anything…funny… about your record.

In dealing with the “contributions to science” change, I more or less refused to do what was requested. As someone who had been a PI for some time, had mostly senior author pubs and relatively few collaborative papers, I could do this. I just made a few statements about an area I have worked in and listed four papers for each. I didn’t describe my specific role as instructed. I didn’t really describe the influence or application to health or technology. So far this has gone fine, as I can’t remember any comments on Investigator on grants I’ve submitted with this new (old) Biosketch that appear confused about what I have done.

The NIH made some other changes to the Biosketch in 2021, the most notable of which was the removal of the list of Research Support that was previously in Section D. I pointed out in a prior post that I suspect this was supposed to be an attempt to break a specific culture of peer review. One that had hardened reviewers and applicants against the longstanding intent of the NIH. It is very clear in the prior instructions that Section D was not supposed to list all active and completed funding over the past three years. The NIH instructed us to only include that which we wanted to call attention to and added the note that it was for reviewers to assess qualifications of the research team for the new project being proposed. They further underlined this by instructing applicants not to confuse this with the Other Support page which was explicitly for reporting all funding. This failed entirely.

As we have said many times, many ways on this blog…. woe betide any poor newbie applicant who takes the instructions about other grant support at face value and omits any funding that can be easily found on funder websites or the investigator’s lab or University splash page. Reviewers will get in a high dudgeon if they think the PI is trying to conceal anything about their research support. This is, I will assert, because they either overtly or covertly are interested in two things. Neither of which the NIH wants them to be interested in.

One, does the PI have “too much money” in their estimation. The NIH is absolutely opposed to reviewers letting their evaluation of proposal merit be contaminated with such concerns but….people are people and jealously reigns supreme. As does self-righteous feelings about how NIH funds should be distributed. So…review, in practice, is biased in a way that the NIH does not like.

The second concern is related, but is about productivity and is therefore slightly more palatable to some. If the recitation of funding is selective, the PI might be motivated to only present projects that have been the most productive or led to the most Glammy papers. They might be also motivated to omit listing any project which have, by some views, under-produced. This is a tricky one. The instructions say reviewers will look at what the PI chooses to list on the Biosketch as evidence of their overall qualifications. But. How can a reviewer assess qualifications only from the projects that went amazingly well without also assessing how many tanked, relatively speaking? Or so would think a reviewer. The NIH is a little more wobbly on this one. “Productivity” is a sort-of tolerated thing and some analysis of papers-per-grant-dollar (e.g. from NIGMS) show their interest, at least from a Program policy perspective. But I think overall that Program does not want this sort of reviewer bean counting to contaminate merit review too much- the Biosketch instructions insist that the direct costs should not be included for any grants that are mentioned. Program wants to make the calls about “too much money”.

Ok so why am I blogging this again today? Well, we’re into the second year of the new, new attempt of NIH to get the list of grants on the Biosketch more selective. And I’m thinking about how this has been evolving in grants that I’ve been asked to review. Wait..”more selective”? Oh yes, the list of grants can now be added to Section A, the Personal Statement. With all of the same language about how this is only for ongoing or completed projects “that you want to draw attention to“. NOT-OD-21-073 even ties this new format description to the re-organization of the Other Support page, again making it clear that these are not the same thing.

So the question of the day is, how are applicants responding? How are reviewers reacting to various options taken by applicants?

I put in my first few applications with the grant list simply removed. I added a statement to Section A summarizing my total number of intervals of competitive support as PI and left it at that. But I’ve seen many applicants who put all their grants in Section A, just as they would have put them in Section D before.

I guess I had better do the same?