The Underfunding of Black Scientists

This week an NIH-commissioned study (featured in Science) found that African-American scientists are 10 percent less likely to receive research funding than white scientists, even when applying from similar institutions and having the same research credentials. According to those at the NIH, this problem could be the result of the long-term advantage white scientists build up over the course of their careers—meaning the social networks and opportunities that they get due to white privilege. Specifically, white scientists have much better exposure to mentoring and more opportunities for research collaboration. However, the NIH also noted that the unfair advantage of white scientists could stem from the peer review process for NIH grants—a process that claims it only takes into account merit, but contains human bias throughout as all processes do.

The NIH collects racial information on its applicants, but that information is not shared with peer review panels. However, as the majority of black scientists work at historically black colleges and universities (HBCU’s), applications to the NIH are not necessarily race-blind because institutional affiliation is part of a grant application. There could be bias on the part of the peer-review panels in terms of the type of institution a scientist hails from, and there could be assumptions about a person’s race based on their institutional type.

Often times, reviewers label black institutions and individuals who are black as sub-par and less than their white counterparts—sometimes consciously but also unconsciously. For over a century, being black in America has been tantamount to “not being as good” and this attitude spills over into peer review processes, college admissions, faculty hiring, and every other aspect of selection in higher education.

Research shows that HBCU’s and their faculty receive substantially fewer federal research dollars. According to a 2008 report by the Congressional Research Service, “Many HBCU’s face difficulty competing for federal research dollars with other research-performing universities.” Federal data reveal that research-performing HBCU’s have not shared proportionately in the distribution of federal research and development dollars going to colleges and universities. Although funding to HBCU’s had increased in the past 10 years in absolute terms, it remains only a small fraction of the total awarded to all U.S. colleges and universities. If HBCU’s receive less federal funding, then so do African-Americans.

In order to create parity in research funding, it is important that the federal government continue to examine its track record for awarding research dollars, taking into consideration race, type of institution, access to opportunity and mentoring, and graduate student pipeline issues. Programs that reach out to African-American scholars and better prepare them to be competitive for grant competitions are essential to eliminating the bias present in funding at all levels.

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