Is There a Bias Against Black Scientists? Funding Sparse for Minority Researchers


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Does skin color affect the amount of research funding the NIH grants? Image by cyblor

Does skin color affect the amount of research funding the NIH grants? Image by cyblor

Black researchers and other minorities face nearly insurmountable barriers against career success, according to new research.

A February 2014 article in the Journal of Career Development details the work experiences of minority researchers in the social sciences.

Rebecca R. Kameny of the 3-C Institute for Social Development in North Carolina, directed the study, which collected data from people of color who attended a workshop on the topic of career barriers.

An astounding 72 percent of participants reported encountering workplace barriers due to their race or ethnicity.

Racism: A Sad History

Bias against minority researchers is not a new subject. In 2011, Donna K. Ginthner and her associates published a study about the NIH and grants to minority researchers. (The NIH, or National Institute of Health, is a government agency that serves as one of the prime supporters of scientific research.)

The Ginther study examined the rates at which grants were given to 83,000 researchers. Unfortunately, they found that the funding agency is biased against African Americans who submitted grant applications. According to the study, blacks are 13% less likely than equally-qualified white candidates to receive funding that is initiated by an NIH investigator.

The study’s writers explained that the researchers’ race is not always written on the application, but the applications’ reviewers could infer race from the applicants’ names and places of study. Without receiving federal funding, a researcher is less likely to receive a teaching position, less likely to be given tenure, and has more difficulty procuring funding to produce research and publish in scholarly journals. Ultimately, the repercussions of grant refusal are reflected in the face of academia.

When the study was published, the director of the NIH noted that the data is troubling and the situation is unacceptable. The NIH launched a $500 million, 10-year program to support young minorities in science. It is also considering changing its review process to review grant proposals anonymously to prevent this issue in the future.

Bias Against Blacks: Misinterpreted Data?

A 2013 study published in the Journal of Informetrics, however, contradicts the premise of bias against black researchers. The study, led by Jiansheng Yang of Virginia Tech, paints a different picture, concluding that the NIH review process contains no inherent racial bias.

Yang and his associates reviewed the work of 40 black faculty members and 80 white faculty members at U.S. medical schools. They assessed the scientists’ productivity, based on the number of publications they wrote, their role on each paper, and the prominence of the journals in which they published. Overall, Wang’s team found that the black faculty members were less productive than their white colleagues.

The researchers then reviewed the work of 11 of those black researchers and 11 of those white researchers who had received NIH funding. When they compared blacks and whites who had the same level of productivity, they found that people of both races received the same level of NIH funding. Wang concluded that funding is determined by level of success, and not by race.

Not Apples to Apples

Ginther, who found ample evidence of the NIH’s racial bias, argued in Science that Wang did not study the same aspects of the process that she did, so he cannot refute her claim. She noted that Wang’s study examined only a small number of researchers, and also looked only at how much funding they received, instead of whether they had a chance of receiving funding in the first place.

Ginther also noted that the black scientists’ lower level of productivity pointed to their difficulty in receiving positive mentoring, which is a further function of bias.

Discrimination is Not Dead

It seems that a majority of African Americans would agree with Ginther’s point about bias. A 2013 Pew Research study about discrimination in America found that a full 88% of blacks reported that there is discrimination against blacks. 46 % believe that there is a lot of discrimination, and the rest report feeling some discrimination. Interestingly, white Americans agree that blacks are discriminated against, but to a lesser degree. Only 16% of whites feel that there is a lot of discrimination, but 41% sense some discrimination.

Regardless of percentages and perceptions, race-based barriers to success have no place in academia or the workplace.

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