Commentary: A Finding in Search of an Explanation

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by Dr. Daryl E. Chubin

An August 19, 2011 report in Science magazine, “Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Awards,” finds that, “After controlling for the applicant’s educational background, country of origin, training, previous research awards, publication record and employer characteristics, we find that Black applicants remain 10 percentage points less likely than Whites to be awarded NIH research funding.  Our results suggest some leverage points for policy intervention.”

Not really. That is left to a Policy Forum (with the dubious subtitle “Sociology”) co-authored by the NIH Director and a News & Analysis column that offers comments by various participants in and observers of the NIH peer review process. Also offered to an invitation-only list was a teleconference the day the Science report was posted online that featured the NIH Director and key members of his staff.

News coverage of the NIH study has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and The Economist, as well as the higher education press and National Public Radio. Most important is that NIH has gone on record to acknowledge a possibly systematic bias. Indeed, what the analytical report, based in large part on NIH data, refused to confront was any explanation for what might be at the root in the differential success rate of Black and White investigators. (African-Americans could not be disaggregated from Africans, just as U.S.-born Latinos/Hispanics could not be separated from those born elsewhere.) 

The Policy Forum, like the Director’s statements during the teleconference, is forthright and linked the findings to actions already initiated. This is what we should expect from our R&D leaders—an acknowledgment that, given the rigor of the analysis, something is wrong in Grantsville. 

Unfortunately, the readers of the higher education online press—I am now convinced having observed the phenomenon repeatedly (and been the target more than once)—represent a population of skeptics, anti-affirmative-action stalwarts, and just plain racists who offer a set of explanations for majority-minority differences that strain credulity. The explanations they proffer include: lack of adequate controls in the research design; review procedures that allow race/ethnicity to influence judgments; inferior quality of proposals submitted by minority investigators; and misguided efforts, like those announced by NIH, to accommodate evidence of bias by experimenting with review procedures and instituting training, mentoring, and other opportunities for young investigators to gain experience serving as a reviewer (which positively correlates with funding success).

These doubters deem such actions as needlessly manipulating a process that should take only the merit of ideas into account. They simply deny the existence of “unconscious bias” (demonstrated repeatedly as part of the human condition) and pretend that the social dimension of reviewing is imaginary or immaterial. They see any organizational adjustment as groundless deference to a minority that correspondingly disadvantages the current dominant group. In other words, the “have-nots” have earned their disadvantaged status and the funding agency has no obligation to assist them in becoming “haves.”

No system can remain credible if those with credentials compete and fail to win scarce rewards on the basis of measures unrelated to merit, or what NIH rates as components of “impact”—notably, project significance, innovation and approach. As sociologists have long known, and the NIH authors and commentators finally recognize, disadvantages accumulate just as do advantages. Without interventions, the gap widens and the playing field continues to tilt toward the haves. Yet any hint of recognition that systems can be fine-tuned strikes too many as preferential, politically correct, and legally assailable.  

Kudos to NIH for answering the “wake-up call” (Director Francis Collins’ words) with transparency and trying to do something about a disparity unexplained. We should watch now with great curiosity instead of suspicion or rancor. This is much ado about something—but not what skeptics suggest. 

Dr. Daryl E. Chubin is the Director of the Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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