Paper in Cell demands that the NIH fund more black scientists; blames racism for disparity. Part 1.

February 4, 2021 • 10:00 am

It’s unusual for a science journal to publish a paper indicting the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for racism, but these are unusual times. The journal happens to be the very prestigious organ Cell, in which nineteen women scientists (I believe they’re all women of color) have indicted the NIH for funding black scientists at only 55% the rate of white ones. Further, they explicitly attribute this disparity to racism against blacks. (Asians aren’t mentioned, so I’m not sure whether they were excluded from the data or lumped in with whites.)

The paper, however, is misguided in several important ways. First, as I mentioned, it blames the funding disparity—which has persisted  for over a decade—on racism, despite the fact that there are several other explanations, two of which have been supported by data.  Second, while the authors cite data that, they say, shows racial bias against scientists, they omit the most relevant data for their contention, which shows no bias against NIH funding of black or female investigators in an extensive trial. They also fail to cite data showing that a lot of the funding disparity is based on racial differences in the kinds of problems investigated, and problems which have different funding rates for investigators of all races. Third, the group (henceforth, “Stevens et al.”) recommends a number of fixes of the system that seem to me manifestly unfair, even as forms of affirmative action. In fact, some of them may be illegal given that the NIH is a governmental organization.

The automatic ascribing of inequity (differential representation) to racism when there are other hypothesis is what I discussed yesterday as the “Diversity/Bias” fallacy, though I’ve since learned that people have given it another name. I claim no priority: it’s an obvious fallacy, especially to a scientist used to sussing out all possible explanations.

As I’ve said, I believe in the value of affirmative action in soliciting graduate students and hiring professors, as well as in other areas of social advancement. But I’ve also stated that this kind of preferential treatment in academics, which I see as valuable for several reasons, should stop at the time someone is hired as a faculty member. At that point, since the hired person has been deemed qualified for the faculty/research position, the affirmative action should cease and the candidate should compete for grants, promotions, and honors on an equal basis with everyone else. On this basis I would thus object to the methods suggested by this consortium to boost the scores and funding for black scientists. (See part 2 of this post for those methods.) Stevens et al. also neglect other disadvantaged groups like Hispanics—perhaps because data on funding disparities don’t exist.

You can see the paper (it’s really a scientific “op-ed”) by clicking on the screenshot below, and you can find the pdf here . The full reference is at the bottom.

Here are the authors’ statements (indented) that indict the NIH and modern science for systemic racism.

We are at a historic moment in time: a mainstream awakening to the pain that stems from racial injustice, with our scientific communities openly acknowledging that our practices promote racial inequity and disparity (Barber et al., 2020; Cell Editorial Team, 2020).

The evidence adduced above consists of the preponderance of white patients in clinical investigations and medical databases (which could reflect bias and racism), and some claims of grant disparity due to “systemic racism,” which, upon investigating those references, don’t show systemic racism or even any bias against blacks.  More assertions:

The first study documenting racial disparity in NIH funding hit the field like a shockwave in 2011 (Ginther et al., 2011). This study showed that award probability for Black principal investigators (PIs) in 2000–2006 was ∼55% that of white PIs of similar academic achievement (Ginther et al., 2011). NIH scrambled to study potential reasons for this injustice (Barber et al., 2020; Erosheva et al., 2020).

Note that they characterize this as an “injustice”, which implicitly means racism, unless the disparity itself is seen as “unjust”. (If you believe in true “equity” with success rates of groups in the same proportion as those groups occur in the general proportion, and disparity of outcome might be considered “unjust”.)

Here’s an explicit mention of the field’s racism:

The NIH director and leadership must recognize that its previous approaches, most of which have focused on filling the “pipeline” without simultaneously addressing our profession’s systemic racism, have failed. NIH must change course.

Direct indictment of racism in the NIH funding system:

We ask: if racism is present in academia, how can it not be present in NIH grant review and research, which are performed by academics?

. . . . For example, the NIH should study the cultural competency and unconscious bias harbored by its reviewers, differential review practices and funding disparity between NIH and the National Science Foundation (NSF), and why “matching criteria” (Erosheva et al., 2020) affecting the funding disparity gap.

. . . Silence is complicity. The continued persistence of a racial funding disparity suggests that the scientific workforce, including the NIH leadership, does not understand nor is adequately equipped to recognize and respond to this racism.

There’s this, including some self-indictment:

Faculty colleagues, we respectfully suggest that it is time for us to acknowledge that we—yes each of us, including many of the authors here—have unintentionally contributed to racial inequity in our profession. As just one example of the insidious nature of systemic racism, many studies have shown that we judge CVs and resumes differently based on the name of the applicant alone with both racial and gender bias, even if these CVs are otherwise identical (Eaton et al., 2020, Henry et al., 2017).

And I find this particularly invidious: the authors demand, in their list of anti-racist changes in NIH funding procedure, to score grants higher if the proposal contains diverse (i.e., black) investigators:

We ask: why is “diversity of the investigator team” not a scorable criterion in NIH grant review and priority for funding?

Be careful with responding, because one answer is racist and the other is not.

Seriously? This is a debatable issue, and one answer does not automatically make one “racist.”

I’ll talk about the c.v. data in a second, and will claim that it’s largely irrelevant to the entire funding procedure of the NIH.

The paper has one figure arguing that antiracist reviewers are needed to eliminate the funding and career disparity between black and white scientists—implying that racist reviewers expressing “group think” account for that disparity.

(From paper): Metaphoric illustration depicting current NIH funding procedures, which destroy innovation (left) versus those that incorporate a broad NIH equity policy (red ladder) and/or in which individual antiracist reviewers (red) advance applications of Black PIs, to create innovation (right).

Note above that the cited evidence for racism in judging grants rests on two papers showing differences when scientists judge c.v.s of black and white investigators. I could access only one of these, the Eaton et al. paper, which does show disparities between sexes and races in hireability, likeability, and judgements of competence when made-up c.v.s of potential postdocs were assessed. (Note that these aren’t grant applicants or potential faculty members being assessed, but postdoctoral candidates.)

The result: Men were judged significantly more competent and hireable, as postdocs while women were judged more likable. For race, “White and Asian candidates were rated as more competent and hireable than Black and Latinx candidates across departments. Likeability ratings were not found to differ significantly by applicant race.”

So this does show apparent sexism and racism in assessing c.v.s of graduate students that are made up. However, another survey of faculty and student hiring preferences show that minority candidates and women are preferred above white candidates and males, especially by faculty. (This is for hiring faculty members, not postdocs.) That study was done not using fake c.v.s but assessing attitudes, and if you were wedded to the hypothesis of racism, one could say that the respondents were simply distorting their own views.

However, all of these disparate results become irrelevant when you look at an important study that, surprisingly, was not even cited by Stevens et al. themselves. It shows, through the use of reviewers assessing (as an exercise) actual NIH proposals whose authors were randomly identified as black, white, male, or female (names were switched around), that there was neither gender nor racial bias in scoring proposals. Since c.v.s are part of NIH proposals, these assessments would include weighing the candidates’ c.v.s and research productivity. Most important, this is an actual study, done in large numbers, of how grant proposals are adjudicated by the NIH (the authors used reviewers who had previously reviewed for the NIH).  The study was published in 2019, so the authors of the Cell piece above certainly knew of it. They just omitted it.

Click on the screenshot to read.

I don’t want to go into detail here, but the researchers used genuine NIH proposals that were either funded or unfunded (24 of each), and sent three proposals to each of 412 scientists who had reviewed NIH grants before. The names were changed to reflect names associated with gender or race, and precautions were taken to prevent the reviewers from checking whether the applicants actually existed. You can read this for yourself, but here’s the conclusion from the abstract:

We find little to no race or gender bias in initial R01 evaluations, and additionally find that any bias that might have been present must be negligible in size. This conclusion was robust to a wide array of statistical model specifications. Pragmatically, important bias may be present in other aspects of the granting process, but our evidence suggests that it is not present in the initial round of R01 reviews.

It’s puzzling that this result isn’t mentioned by Stevens et al., since it’s the most important study bearing on the possibility of bias in NIH reviewing.

So if there’s no bias in reviewing, why do black investigators get NIH funding only 55% as often as do white investigators? One possibility, which is supported by another study, is that black investigators choose areas of application that generally have lower funding rates. And, indeed, the paper below supports that (click on screenshot; see a shorter summary here):

Here’s a summary from the abstract:

Notably, AA/B [African-American/Black] applicants tend to propose research on topics with lower award rates. These topics include research at the community and population level, as opposed to more fundamental and mechanistic investigations; the latter tend to have higher award rates. Topic choice alone accounts for over 20% of the funding gap after controlling for multiple variables, including the applicant’s prior achievements.

In other words, black investigators tend to propose “applied” studies, including those involving community intervention, health disparities, fertility, adolescent health, and so on, that are directed more towards solving social problems than other proposals involving “pure” research, and these studies are funded at lower rates—regardless of the investigator’s ethnicity or sex—than are “pure research” studies.   

Of course, one could argue that this involves bias of a sort as well—bias against applied research. One could also argue that this kind of work is seen as less important because it’s considered an area of interest to minorities.

Now this factor accounts for only 20% of the disparity in funding between black and white scientists. An earlier study that I haven’t yet seen shows that “rack record” (i.e., accomplishments as recorded on the NIH c.v., which includes papers published that resulted from previous grants or other funding) to have an even larger effect on rate of funding. That shows that the track record of black scientists is rated lower than white scientists in funding, but, as we saw above, racism itself, as opposed to this index of previous accomplishment, wasn’t found to contribute to funding scores. Track record is not a funding problem, but a “pipeline” problem whose solution is complex. But, as I’ve suggested, widening the pipeline—assuring equality of opportunity for all at the outset of life—is the best and most permanent way of treating people fairly.

The study above suggests at least one route for reducing the funding disparity: upgrade the importance of “applied” research involving community intervention, public health, and so on. Because those fields disproportionately attract black investigators, you could fund more minority scientists simply by diverting more money to these areas. In this way you increase equity without any form of affirmative action. (Of course, upgrading areas that tend to attract minority investigators could be seen as a form of affirmative action.)

I see this post is getting too long, so I’ll break it into two sections. In this one we’ve seen that the claim of systemic racism is not a data-supported explanation for the lower funding rate of black investigators. What the data show for funding is that race or sex don’t seem to be important, but that track record and choice of research area do. To create more equity in funding then, one has to consider interventions that would improve the track record of black scientists (this is a complex problem that begins well before grants are submitted) or give more money to areas of applied research.

However, the Cell paper of Stevens et al. suggest affirmative-action interventions instead: when evaluating grants, we should give black investigators higher scores, special interventions, and different treatment. In the next and final bit of this analysis, I’ll discuss these recommendations.

h/t: Luana

Stevens, K. R., K. S. Masters, P. I. Imoukhuede, K. A. Haynes, L. A. Setton, E. Cosgriff-Hernandez, M. A. Lediju Bell, P. Rangamani, S. E. Sakiyama-Elbert, S. D. Finley, R. K. Willits, A. N. Koppes, N. C. Chesler, K. L. Christman, J. B. Allen, J. Y. Wong, H. El-Samad, T. A. Desai, and O. Eniola-Adefeso. 2021. Fund Black scientists. Cell. DOI:

32 thoughts on “Paper in Cell demands that the NIH fund more black scientists; blames racism for disparity. Part 1.

  1. Amazing a paper like this would be published (let a lone authored) when it is so easily shown to be itself biased.

    And this:

    “We ask: why is “diversity of the investigator team” not a scorable criterion in NIH grant review and priority for funding?
    Be careful with responding, because one answer is racist and the other is not.”

    If you want to shut down discussion and line up opposition, write that!

    1. If you follow the link to the paper where that remark was derived (published in Nature!) you will find another letter from the Nouveau Racist woke; a screed against funding agencies, academia and all the world. Follow the link – it’s an appalling whine about how racist science is and the evil that lurks in the hearts of white people. All because blacks are not represented in academic STEM faculty positions equivalent to their percentage in the population. That fact can only have one reason and if you suggest that it may be more complicated than that, well then you are a racist. No discussion, as you point out, is allowed.

      Did I mention it was published in Nature?

      That front line journals like Nature and Cell are giving these New Racists a voice is a sign that all is lost. I admire those who will risk their careers fighting back against them, but it’ll be like trying to hold the tide back with a broom.

      1. Even with straight science, Nature is well known for publishing stuff which creates the most discussion, rather than the best stuff. One editor even said, and this is almost a direct quote, that being controversial is more important than being right.

        1. Is that right? So can we expect to see letters in Nature (and Cell) from the far right now? That would be controversial and, after all, controversy is the only motive for publishing letters that say we are not allowed to question assumptions. According to that editor, anyway.

          Of course we won’t see those opinions. This is a ratchet that only benefits the idiot left. And it’s taking over.

  2. They cite Kendi’s book – this might be the first scientific publication of any sort that cites it.

    Kendi’s “antiracist” term could now take on a scientific reading in addition to it’s sociological reading, akin to “antiparallel”, “antiquark”, or indeed “anti” vs. “syn”.

    I wonder if the scientific sound of “antiracist” was part of the coining of the term, combined with “antisemite”.

    1. I read a quip somewhere, “as particle physics tell us, an antifascist is just a fascist with reversed charge”. I wonder if that can be applied to antiracists as well…

  3. The study above suggests at least one route to go if you want to reduce the funding disparity: upgrade the importance of “applied” research involving community intervention, public health, and so on.

    I think this is an excellent idea. Given Covid in particular, community intervention & health care research needs to be given a big funding boost. How do we inform better. How do we gain more trust. How do we distribute care better. Etc.
    I’d also add that doing so will probably help solve the pipeline problem (so…a twofer!). Student choice of majors and careers isn’t static – you often see swings towards careers that students see as up and coming, more valuable, more lucrative, etc. A big boost to the job market and funding for applied health care science would probably result in kids who are interested in the subject, but might otherwise pass on it for economic reasons, going into it.

    1. Personally I am glad that less money is allocated to the applied sciences. Just imagine if we had in the last 50 years had more research funded in the applied sciences then it would not take a great leap of imagination to realise that we would not be in a position to develop a covid vaccine at lightning speed now. This was only achievable due to past pure research. I am not saying that we should be abandoning the soft science just don’t expect ground breaking solutions from it. I think the balance is about right.

      1. It’s not a zero sum game. I’m not advocating shifting money from R&D pot A to R&D pot B. I’m advocating adding federal budget funding to R&D pot B, with no negative effect on A.

  4. “Silence is complicity”

    That is almost directly from DiAngelo’s writing. Confront individuals with a problem, and demand they keep talking with the objective that they only admit they are the cause of the problem. It sounds like a totalitarian interrogation technique – or at least something from The Godfather movies.

  5. I like to imagine this was an ecological study of hunting (rather than grant) success by two different types of predators (rather than Black and other grant applicants). Would one believe the researchers’ claim that one group has 55% lower hunting success due to interference (racism) by a super predator (NIH reviewers), but without watching what the super predators actually do? Especially if the researchers didn’t take into account things like past hunting success (the pipeline problem) and the type of prey typically chosen to hunt (research topic)? And especially if a previous group of researchers had specifically watched the behavior of the super predators and shown that they interfere with both types of predators equally? That ecological study probably could not be published: its conclusions might be correct but there’s no evidence for them.

  6. The study of human populations also reveals troubling cases of inequity in certain diseases. Tay-Sachs disease shows a higher incidence amongst Ashkenazi Jews, Quebec French Canadians, and Cajuns than in the general population (examples, perhaps, of white privilege). More troubling, sickle cell anemia is more frequent amongst individuals of sub-Saharan African ancestry than in the general population. True Progressives realize that this disparity is due, like so much else, to systemic racism. Unfortunately, geneticists distract attention from systems of oppression by continuing to discuss these disparities in terms of genes, something called allele frequencies, and colonialist abstractions like past evolutionary history and heterozygote advantage. Surely, we can soon expect to see politically enlightened activists denouncing the reactionary implications of the entire subject of Genetics, or what was once called, in a land across the sea, bourgeois imperialist Mendelism-Morganism. We look forward to seeing a letter in Cell to this effect any day.

  7. It is at times mentioned that it may be useful to remove identifying information in reviewed materials like faculty job applications, manuscripts, and grant proposals. There are numerous weaknesses, where the authors can be easily “outed”, but if it could be made to work it would be useful for addressing both real and imagined biases.

  8. Its very depressing to see the US obsession with race spreading everywhere, even into science.

    Every ruling class in the world must be laughing their heads off.

    That said, increased funding of applied versus theoretiecal work is almost certainly a good idea anyway.

    1. … increased funding of applied versus theoretiecal work is almost certainly a good idea anyway.

      Einstein would deviate from that line of thought, Heisenberg is not so certain about it either, and Higgs thinks it’s massively misguided.

      1. Einstein didn’t need much in the way of research grants for his work, so I’m not sure he would.

        Nobody is suggesting that theoretical (in the correct scientific use of the term) work is useless or should not be funded, as you appear to be trying to imply, but there are many areas where you could certainly make a case for more funding going towards the applied side.

          1. Agreed it was a joke, but there was still straw-manning hiding under the joke.

            Oh, and apologies for “theoretiecal”. I’m so ashamed.

  9. I offer this up as my personal experience. As a former NIH employee, and having sat through numerous evaluations (not as a reviewer mind you, but in an oversight capacity making sure that reviewers don’t stray outside the bounds of established review criteria), there wasn’t even a whiff of racism in the process or among the evaluators. None. Nor, in my opinion, should the NIH even consider the diversity of the team in making an award decision. What does the diversity of the team have to do with the goals of the research effort?

  10. Why don’t the Woke just put their money where their mouth is, and create private funds specifically to support black scientists? Why do they always want to recruit for their cause the revenue and muscles of government?

  11. The Great Awokening reaches ever more rarified precincts. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine are forming a committee to explore ways to increase Diversity and Inclusion in the leadership teams of space mission proposals submitted to NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. Before long, we can expect the Diversity Statements in space mission proposals to carry as much weight as their engineering feasibility, or maybe more. The outcome could be interesting to watch.

  12. “The study was published in 2019, so the authors of the Cell piece above certainly knew of it. They just omitted it.”

    Never let inconvenient data get in the way of a political narrative?

  13. It is not clear what it will change if black scientists are funded – or rather, if the desired outcome of a larger number of NIH grants going to a larger number of black professors.

    For the same budget, if anti black racism only keeps professors who are black from winning grant funding, then how can more grants be given out without the size in dollars of each grant decreasing, or kicking out grants of white professors? To my eye, the graphic – while captivating – does not quantitate the proposed scheme.

  14. Well reasoned PCC (E).
    There’s a feeling about that elites are incredibly racist, donning white robes after work. Without going into my own biography I mix in pretty elite circles and I find this to absolutely *not* be the case. Maybe it is just my “Champaign socialist” Manhattan life, but in my milieu, after perhaps pedophilia the worst thing one could be accused of is racism.

    Not that it doesn’t exist, all sorts of biases do, but isn’t the fact it is decreasing (see Pinker et al) suggestive that we’re moving in the right direction as a society? Moral panics that are based on a kernel of truth are the most virulent.

    “Silence is complicity”, like “silence is violence” are *slogans*, not arguments, a point I made with a BLM activist lately.

    D.A., J.D.

  15. I have a dream – that one day a scientist may be judged by the quality of his science, and not by the colour of his skin. Seems like the woke are, once again, making sure that skin colour is all that matters, even in science.

    1. I think if the authors could say it here, I think they would be arguing for the assessment of an applicant on the basis of *where* and possibly *when* their genes came from. In particular, it would be descendants of slaves from the 19th century or earlier in The United States.

  16. Or maybe an “antifascist” is just a “fascist” moving backwards in time? that would explain their Soviet-style tactics of denunciations and cancellations.

  17. At a very young thus malleably impressionable age I was emphatically told by my mother about the exceptionally kind and caring nature of our Black family doctor.

    She never had anything disdainful to say about people of color; in fact she loves to watch/listen to the Middle Eastern and Indian subcontinental dancers and musicians on the multicultural channels.

    Therefor, basically by chance I reached adulthood unstricken by uncontrolled feelings of racial contempt seeking expression.

    Conversely, if she’d told me the opposite about the doctor, I could have aged while subconsciously associating his skin color with an unjustly cynical view of him and, by extension, all Black people.

    Not as lucky, some people—who may now be in an armed authority capacity—were raised with a distrust or blind dislike of other racial groups. …

    Remove the greatest difference among humans—race/color—and left are less obvious differences over which to clash, such as sub-racial identity (i.e. ethnicity), nationality, religion and so forth down that scale we tumble.

    Add a deadly pandemic disease to the already problematic equation and there’s a real potent fuel for the hateful fire.

    Therefore, what humankind may need to suffer in order to survive the long term—indeed, from ourselves!—is an even greater nemesis (perhaps a multi-tentacled ET?) than our own politics of difference, against which we could all unite, attack and defeat—all during which we’d be forced to work closely side-by-side together and witness just how humanly similar we are to each other.

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