NIH accused of structural racism, even though there’s no evidence for it; but director Francis Collins apologizes anyway

March 4, 2021 • 1:00 pm

About a month ago, I wrote two posts (here and here) about a paper calling attention to the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) disparity in funding black versus white investigators (this disparity is real), and the accusations that this is due to structural racism at the NIH (false). There are several sets of data showing that the funding disparity is due to other factors, like choice of research field, as well as suggesting that there is no racism involved in assessing NIH proposals.

And yet now the NIH is saying that the organization, and biomedical research in general, are ridden with “structural racism”, and working to omit racism for which there’s no evidence (indeed, there’s evidence against it).

I’ll briefly reiterate the lines of evidence for lack of racial bias in NIH funding disparities.

a.) An extensive 2019 study in which blinded referees were asked to review genuine NIH proposals with black, white, and female authors, found no evidence of racial or gender bias. Here’s a summary from the study’s authors:

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.

R01s are primary research grants: the most important source of funding for individual investigators. Curiously, nobody seems to pay attention to this study, and I suspect it’s because it doesn’t support the dominant narrative of racial bias.

b.) Another paper in Science Advances showed that the funding disparity was due to two factors. First, black investigators tended to submit proposals for kinds of research, and to research areas, that historically have not had funding rates as high as those of fields involving more “pure research”. That is, the disparity was due in part to choice of research area, not to race. An even large amount of the disparity in funding was the “track record” of investigators: previous research and success in doing well with funded grants. As I wrote:

An earlier study that I haven’t yet seen shows that “track 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.

This again, seems to not involve racial bias, because these track records are part of NIH proposals, whose evaluation, as noted in a), show no evidence for racial bias.

If then, you want to attain equal rates of funding of black versus white investigators (“equity”), you must either shift the priorities for different areas to get funding, or work on ways to improve the track record of black scientists applying for grants. The latter difference may ultimately devolve to historical racism which creates the “pipeline” problem, but what’s clear is that accusations of racism during the NIH evaluation process itself are unfounded.

Click on the screenshot to read the Science piece, including the director’s apology for “structural racism” for which there’s no evidence:

NIH director Francis Collins, who’s done a good job at the helm, nevertheless had to take one for team diversity and say that there’s structural racism at the NIH. All indented sections are from the article, and I’ll respond briefly.

Collins’s apology is certainly responding to an earlier letter in Cell that basically called the NIH racist in its funding decisions. The indented quotes, though, are from the article above:

Responding to concerns about discrimination against Black people, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins today issued an unusual public apology for what he called “structural racism in biomedical research” and pledged to address it with a sweeping set of actions.

NIH’s long-running efforts to improve diversity “have not been sufficient,” Collins wrote in the statement. “To those individuals in the biomedical research enterprise who have endured disadvantages due to structural racism, I am truly sorry.” The agency plans “new ways to support diversity, equity, and inclusion,” and will also correct policies within the agency “that may harm our workforce and our science,” he added.

As I said, there’s no published evidence for racism at the NIH, and funding disparities are due to other factors. And note that Collins is indicting the NIH, not just “biomedical research” (I can’t speak to racism in the latter, but we’re talking about the NIH, which was the subject of the Cell letter).

What he’s asking for here is equity, that is, equal funding of black and white investigators, not just equal opportunity, which involves proposals judged by merit alone, and without racism. In other words, there is to be a quota of some sorts, attained by either by switching around the NIH’s funding priorities by overemphasizing applied research and downgrading pure research (a major change), or somehow prioritizing black scientists over white ones, which is illegal (see below).

More. I’m not sure whether Native Americans can be considered to be less important than blacks in getting funding given the history of genocide of America’s indigenous people, but I’m not touching that:

Although some observers welcomed NIH’s plans, first described Friday at a meeting of Collins’s Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD), critics fault the agency for not more directly addressing funding disparities between Black and white scientists.

NIH’s move is, in part, a response to last year’s incidents of police brutality as well as the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Black people. An ACD working group on diversity released a report on Friday that calls for NIH to “acknowledge the prevalence of racism and anti-Blackness in the scientific workforce.” The group focused specifically on Black people and not groups such as Native Americans because of the country’s 300-year legacy of slavery and segregation, says co-chair Roy Wilson, president of Wayne State University.

Here are the data on disparities in funding:

NIH has also faced long-standing concerns about racial bias in its funding patterns. A 2011 study known as the Ginther report found Black researchers’ funding rates are 10 percentage points lower than those of white researchers. The latest data show improvement: From 2003 to 2020, the number of basic R01 grants to Black investigators has risen from 52 to 166, and their success rate has doubled to 24%, compared with 31% for white investigators. Still, that is only “incremental improvement,” says Marie Bernard, NIH acting chief officer for scientific workforce diversity.

A doubling of success rate in 17 years seems pretty good to me, and the gap has lowered to only 7%. But that this is characterized as “only incremental improvement” seems weird to me: of course improvement will be incremental, and it will be especially slow if it depends on improvements in science education and opportunities for minorities that start at a young age.

The article notes that the NIH is already committing itself to spending $60 on funding research on “health disparities and health equity”, and is appointing diversity officers at every one of its 27 institutes and centers, as well as improving “outreach about NIH’s diversity training programs”.

But that is not enough, for people are demanding immediate equity in funding:

But many of the planned steps were presented “in a passive, noncommittal way,” Eniola-Adefeso says [she is the senior author on the Cell critique of the NIH]. And her group was disappointed that NIH has not agreed to fund Black scientists seeking R01s at the same rate as white scientists. Some observers have argued NIH could narrow the gap by funding Black scientists whose proposals fall just outside the peer-review score that is the cutoff for funding; the agency already does this for grants that meet an institute’s programmatic goals.

They are demanding funding equity, but that’s hard to do for three reasons. As I noted above, part of the gap is due to different choices between black and white scientists in what areas they apply for, with black scientists applying in areas that are less liable to be funded for everyone. Second, there is the differential track record, and omitting that means ditching an important meritocratic way to evaluate grants: how well the scientist has done. But, as we know, meritocracy is being downgraded in many places, probably for this reason.

Finally, to rate or rank grants using race as a criterion, especially in a government-run institution, is simply illegal.

“That is the immediate action that is needed,” Eniola-Adefeso says. “We cannot wait for more studies. We will lose [investigators] from the pipeline which then propagates this vicious cycle.” NIH’s diversity working group noted that Supreme Court decisions make it difficult for the agency to make funding decisions based on race or ethnicity.

The courts have ruled, in principle, that it’s discriminatory to use race-based funding, at least not in a government system. As I said, there are ways to decrease the funding gap, though they may not be palatable to the NIH itself, which may be why they can make only “incremental” improvements. Other ways mean improving education and opportunity for minorities starting at birth, but talk about incremental change: that will be extremely incremental! But, as I say repeatedly, it’s the only way to effect truly equal opportunity.

But one thing is clear, there is not a scintilla of evidence that the funding disparity at the NIH is due to racism. Collins has nothing to apologize for about the NIH. Why he chooses to perpetuate the narrative of structural racism in his organization, in light of the evidence for no racism (and no evidence for racism itself) is something I’ll leave to others.

23 thoughts on “NIH accused of structural racism, even though there’s no evidence for it; but director Francis Collins apologizes anyway

  1. I suppose this appeals to the notions that it couldn’t hurt – just in case – can’t be too careful – it’s all “baked in” – who’s to say – it might have been there from the beginning, and now it is hard to see. A Pascal’s wager sort of thing.

    1. It also would send a message – and I think this is a good thing – that hidden racists in the system are on notice, and everyone else ought to consider their own racial biases.

    2. It’s also divisive, convincing society that there’s racism in places where it doesn’t exist. So yes, it could hurt. There’s still racism, of course, but saying that it’s everywhere, especially in places where tests show it isn’t, just perpetuates the theme of “out of many, many”.

    3. Except that if you try to introduce equity where there is no racist bias, you will inevitably end up funding some not so good research over some good research in order to make your black quota.

  2. It is notable that the activists are asking for quotas, and not asking for race-blind reviewing (so that names and ID information is removed from the applications).

    An anecdote: I recently saw on Twitter a scientist, recently appointed to a tenure-track faculty position at a prestigious university, complaining that someone had remarked that they had, of course, only got that position because they were black. The Tweeter reported this remark as an example of the hostile environment they were in, which was itself “systemic racism”.

    So, out of interest, and since this was a field I know about so could judge, I looked up that person’s record. And it was ok for a junior postdoc, but there is no way that a person with that record would have got a faculty position at such an institution had they been white or Asian. And if such a person then went into open grant-bidding competition they would struggle. Hence the request for quotas.

  3. Is it just me, or do others think that the term “systemic racism” needs to be clearly defined? When I read or hear “systemic racism,” I used to think of the heinous practices of “separate but equal,” Jim Crow laws, and the redlining of real estate, to list the most obvious. But these days I’m confused by what I see to be equivocation of the term, with its meaning stretched to wrap around whatever the user of the term needs it to be in order to condemn someone or some organization. In other words, “systemic racism” is a buzzword employed to numb thinking and preemptively shut down criticism and disapprobation.

    1. Sure – actually a distinction between structural and systemic would help. And if these things are truly independent of personal attributes. Because they sound like menacing, inanimate objects that exist independent of any single person. Or is the architecture built by racists? Are the rules made by racists, or by people born to racists? Could be any of that.

      Also remember – racism hides in the shadows.

      1. Yes, that distinction would help. I tend to confuse the two. Hmm, “menacing, inanimate objects that exist independent of any single person”…the “invisible hand” of the market, the engrams of the Scientologists…?

    2. The Woke definition of “systemic racism” is “anything at all that results in unequal outcomes between groups”. Hence any inequality between groups in any situation is necessarily, and by definition, a result of “racism”.

      1. Thanks, that’s helpful, and it certainly seems to be the way Kendi defines it. But I’m not satisfied with Kendi’s definition. I need to know what exactly the systems are. Still looking…

  4. There’s a saying, “it used to be about the music” – maybe it’s just me, but it came to mind.

  5. Apologizing for “systemic racism” in something—and especially in cases where there is no evidence whatsoever for its presence, like NIH grant awards, Smith College, Haverford College, English departments, bird-watching societies, etc. etc.—has now become a conventional gesture of polite society, like the right way to hold a teacup. As such, it is imitated continually, automatically, by conventional individuals whose deepest anxiety is the danger of appearing to be out of step.

  6. This finding here “First, black investigators tended to submit proposals for kinds of research, and to research areas, that historically have not had funding rates as high as those of fields involving more “pure research”. That is, the disparity was due in part to choice of research area, not to race.” sounds like a pretty good description of what is thought of as structural racism. I.E. the kinds of research that tends to attract black researchers is perceived as being of less value than research more favoured by white people with the keys to the research safe.

    Kind of like the people who say that the gender wage gap is due to the choices of careers women make. Well true but it seems like a coincidence that the work women tend to choose to do is less well compensated. Could that be because employers value work perceived as more female less?

    1. I agree. The paper found that the NIH is set up to fund research that black researchers are less likely to apply for. That’s what structural racism is — where the design of the system itself is biased for or against certain groups of people, whether intentionally or not (and I would assume that it wasn’t intentional in this case).

    2. “… white people with the keys to the research safe.“

      It would have to be shown that

      A. There are only “white” people making decisions to fund research

      B. These areas of research only have “black” researchers not getting funding – and if any “white” researchers are in those areas, they would have to get funding.

      .. I’m getting confused. Are the areas in question actually getting _any_ funding? Or just less than some other area?

    3. …. ok I re-read it : yes, funding rates were not as high as pure research. That doesn’t mean nobody got funded (in a particular time period).

      Are those areas funded at higher rates to others? What is the lowest? There’s a bunch of things that have to be shown.

  7. It depends on how the NIH chooses the research areas it prioritizes. If it chooses the research areas as the most pressing national health questions, no! You are claiming the NIH chooses research areas because they do not attract black researchers. Evidence? I somehow doubt that is true. I expect NIH director Collins will investigate to ensure that it is not the case. If the research areas are chosen wisely, for the good of the nation and the taxpayers who support the NIH, then it is up to the researchers to adjust to the needs of the NIH, not the other way around.

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