Disparity of NSF funding

July 22, 2022

You are familiar with the #GintherGap, the disparity of grant award at NIH that leaves the applications with Black PIs at substantial disadvantage. Many have said from the start that it is unlikely that this is unique to the NIH and we only await similar analyses to verify that supposition.

Curiously the NSF has not, to my awareness, done any such study and released it for public consumption.

Well, a group of scientists have recently posted a preprint:

Chen, C. Y., Kahanamoku, S. S., Tripati, A., Alegado, R. A., Morris, V. R., Andrade, K., & Hosbey, J. (2022, July 1). Decades of systemic racial disparities in funding rates at the National Science Foundation. OSF Preprints. July 1. doi:10.31219/osf.io/xb57u.

It reviews National Science Foundation awards (from 1996-2019) and uses demographics provided voluntarily by PIs. They found that the applicant PIs were 66% white, 3% Black, 29% Asian and below 1% for each of American Indian/Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander groups. They also found that across the reviewed years, the overall funding rate varied from 22%-34%, so the data were represented as the rate for each group relative to the average for each year. In Figure 1, reproduced below, you can see that applications with white PIs enjoy a nice consistent advantage relative to other groups and the applications with Asian PIs suffer a consistant disadvantage. The applications with Black PIs are more variable year over year but are mostly below average except for 5 years when they are right at the average. The authors note this means that in 2019, there were 798 awards with white PIs above expected value, and 460 fewer than expected awarded with Asian PIs. The size of the disparity differs slightly across the directorates of the NSF (there are seven, broken down by discipline such as Biological Sciences, Engineering, Math and Physical Sciences, Education and Human Resources, etc) but the same dis/advantage based on PI race remains.

Fig 1B from Chen et al. 2022 preprint

It gets worse. It turns out that these numbers include both Research and Non-Research (conference, training, equipment, instrumentation, exploratory) awards. Which represent 82% and 18% of awards, with the latter generally being awarded at 1.4-1.9 times the rate for Research awards in a given year. For white

Fig 3 from Chen et al 2022 preprint FY 13 – 19;
open = Non-Research, closed = Research

PI applications the two types both are funded at higher than the average rate, however significant differences emerge for Black and Asian PIs with Research awards having the lower probability of success.

So why is this the case. Well, the white PI applications get better scores from extramural reviewers. Here, I am not expert in how NSF works. A mewling newbie really. But they solicit peer reviewers which assign merit scores from 1 (Poor) to 5 (Excellent). The preprint shows the distributions of scores for FY15 and FY16 Research applications, by PI race, in Figure 5. Unsurprisingly there is a lot of overlap but the average score for white PI apps is superior to that for either Black or Asian PI apps. Interestingly, average scores are worse for Black PI apps than for Asian PI apps. Interesting because the funding disparity is larger for Asian PIs than for Black PIs. And as you can imagine, there is a relationship between score and chances of being funded but it is variable. Kind of like a Programmatic decision on exception pay or the grey zone function in NIH land. Not sure exactly how this matches up over at NSF but the first author of the preprint put me onto a 2015 FY report on the Merit Review Process that addresses this. Page 74 of the PDF (NSB-AO-206-11) has a Figure 3.2 showing the success rates by average review score and PI race. As anticipated, proposals in the 4.75 (score midpoint) bin are funded at rates of 80% or better. About 60% for the 4.25 bin, 30% for the 3.75 bin and under 10% for the 3.25 bin. Interestingly, the success rates for Black PI applications are higher than for white PI applications at the same score. The Asian PI success rates are closer to the white PI success rates but still a little bit higher, at comparable scores. So clearly something is going on with funding decision making at NSF to partially counter the poorer scores, on average, from the reviewers. The Asian PI proposals do not have as much of this advantage. This explains why the overall success rates for Black PI applications are closer to the average compared with the Asian PI apps, despite worse average scores.

Fig 5 from Chen et al 2022 preprint

One more curious factor popped out of this study. The authors, obviously, had to use only the applications for which a PI had specified their race. This was about 96% in 1999-2000 when they were able to include these data. However it was down to 90% in 2009, 86% in 2016 and then took a sharp plunge in successive years to land at 76% in 2019. The first author indicated on Twitter that this was down to 70% in 2020, the largest one year decrement. This is very curious to me. It seems obvious that PIs are doing whatever they think is going to help them get funded. For the percentage to be this large it simply has to involve large numbers of white PIs and likely Asian PIs as well. It cannot simply be Black PIs worried that racial identification will disadvantage them (a reasonable fear, given the NIH data reported in Ginther et al.) I suspect a certain type of white academic who has convinced himself (it’s usually a he) that white men are discriminated against, that the URM PIs have an easy ride to funding and the best thing for them to do is not to declare themselves white. Also another variation on the theme, the “we shouldn’t see color so I won’t give em color” type. It is hard not to note that the US has been having a more intensive discussion about systemic racial discrimination, starting somewhere around 2014 with the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson MO. This amped up in 2020 with the strangulation murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Somewhere in here, scientists finally started paying attention to the Ginther Gap. News started getting around. I think all of this is probably causally related to sharp decreases in the self-identification of race on NSF applications. Perhaps not for all the same reasons for every person or demographic. But if it is not an artifact of the grant submission system, this is the most obvious conclusion.

There is a ton of additional analysis in the preprint. Go read it. Study. Think about it.

Additional: Ginther et al. (2011) Race, ethnicity, and NIH research awards. Science, 2011 Aug 19; 333(6045):1015-9. [PubMed]

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