More from New Zealand, a nation whose science is circling the drain

January 23, 2022 • 12:00 pm

I’ve written a lot about New Zealand lately, in particular the schools’ and government’s attempt to force the teaching of “indigenous ways of knowing” (mātauranga Māori) into the science classroom as a system coequal in value with modern science. That means not only equal classroom time, but equal respect, treating indigenous ways of knowing as complementary if not identical to “scientific truth”. Note that I’m not dismissing the value of mātauranga Māori (henceforth “MM”) in some spheres, even science. For MM contains “practical knowledge”, like how to catch eels, that could conceivably be inserted into science courses.

And of course MM s the worldview of the indigenous people, and thus an important part of the history and tradition of New Zealand. It thus deserves to be taught in anthropology or sociology classes. But the science within MM is precious little compared with the larger titer of myth, legend, superstition, theology, and morality that are essential to MM. This other stuff is not a “way of knowing” and thus cannot be taught in science classes. Note as well that MM is also explicitly creationist. Do Kiwis really want to confuse students by telling them that Māori creation myths are just as “scientific” as is biological evolution?  Teaching MM as science is just as fraught as teaching any indigenous “way of knowing” as science: it’s a pathway that leads inevitably to the degeneration of science education in a country.

If you want to see what’s in store for New Zealand’s secondary schools and universities, have a read of the brochure below (click on screenshot to get a free copy), which is the University of Auckland’s “five year and ten year plans” for where it wants to go vis-à-vis education and reputation. I’ve read it twice, and have concluded four things:

a. There’s no “there” there: it’s all a bunch of chirpy aspirations about making the University a world thought leader, but without any tangible steps for doing so. I’ve rarely read a “plan” so devoid of content.

b. It’s abysmally written and loaded with Māori words that you can’t understand unless you’re fluent in the language (have a look, for instance, at the title).

c. It’s basically a plan for handing over half the curriculum and its planning to Māori, including teaching MM, though they constitute only 16.5% of the New Zealand population (Asians are 15.3%).

d. There is nothing at all about science in the plan except this lame quote from the “research and innovation page” of aspirations:

Be a research partner of choice for industry, policymakers and community organisations.

• Review promotion and reward systems to appropriately recognise the value of a range of research endeavours.

• Upskill and build capability of staff and students in research impact, engagement and science communication.

(“Upskill”? Is that a word.?) At any rate, you get the sense from the above of what’s in this screed: a lot of fine-sounding words without any substance. In fact, the one mention of science I’ve just quoted is the ONLY time that word is used in the entire 28-page vision statement, while the words “mātauranga Māori” are used six times. That’s way more than “coequal”!

The sole mention of science:

One of six mentions of MM:

And what kind of vision plan says nothing about science education?

The deep-sixing of modern science in NZ is pretty much a done deal, as the Ardern government has decided that the initial agreement between the “Crown” (settlers) and the Māori—embodied in the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, known in Māori as “Te Tiriti”) should be interpreted as meaning that  Māori should ultimately get not just equity (since they’re a minority of Kiwis), but extra equity: half of the money and half of the power.

Now pushback by minority groups everywhere is largely about power, which is fine because oppression is a withdrawal of power. But my reading of the government’s push is that power is to be apportioned to indigenous people so that they get at least half the say in everything.

It’s as if the government of the U.S. decided that Native Americans got not only half the research funding for science, but half the say in teaching their “way of knowing” in science classes. This just won’t do, as times have moved on. MM rarely changes, and most of it cannot be falsified, while science steams its way forward. This is not to say that Māori shouldn’t have more power than they do already (I can’t speak to that), but that the government of New Zealand apparently is so ridden with guilt that it’s ready to hand over its science and its universities—not to mention its dosh—to Māori or to anybody who claims Māori ancestry.

The money issue had escaped my mind until I read the article below, which appears at a reputable website (Point of Order) and was written by a reputable journalist, Graham Adams. His point is that the drive to establish hegemony of MM has as a main goal the acquisition of money for Māori-centric research (I know of examples of this, but they’re quite trivial)—in fact, half of all money allocated for research. If you want to hurt scientific progress in New Zealand, that’s a good way to do it. One can of course—and should—try to interest Māori in modern scientific endeavors, but that’s not what Adams is talking about.

An excerpt (my emphasis):

The incendiary stoush was sparked last July by seven eminent professors stating in a letter to the Listener that indigenous knowledge is not science and therefore does not warrant inclusion in the NCEA syllabus as being equal to science.

Yet in the five months since the letter was published, virtually no one among those opposing the professors has argued convincingly that mātauranga Māori is scientific (even if some small elements of it could be called proto-science or pre-science).

On the face of it, the debate by now should have been declared a clear win for the professors and their supporters.   In rebuttal, their principal critics — including the Royal Society NZ, Auckland University Vice-Chancellor Dawn Freshwater, the Tertiary Education Union and prominent Covid commentators Drs Siouxsie Wiles and Shaun Hendy — have not gone beyond asserting that  mātauranga Māori is a valuable and unique system of knowledge that is complementary to science.

This view is not contentious in the slightest — and was explicitly endorsed by the professors themselves in their letter.

So, if most everyone agrees that mātauranga Māori is mostly not science but is nevertheless a worthwhile and complementary form of knowledge, the obvious solution to the standoff over including it in the NCEA curriculum would be to teach it as a component of, say, social studies. But not as part of the science syllabus.

That way, you’d think, everyone wins — Māori knowledge would be taught in secondary schools, and the argument over whether it is sufficiently scientific would vanish.

However, a simple accommodation of this kind was never going to be possible because the NCEA syllabus is merely the tip of a large iceberg of policies to recast our entire science education system — from schools to universities to research institutes — as an equal endeavour between Māori and non-Māori in which mātauranga Māori is everywhere accorded the same status as science.

And thats the rub, because “status” includes money.


The NCEA syllabus represents just one small step in fulfilling a much wider co-governance programme based on a radical view of the Treaty as a 50:50 partnership between Maori and the Crown. For that reason, advocates of incorporating Maori knowledge into the science curriculum cannot afford to concede even an inch of ground to the professors and their supporters lest their stealthy revolution be undermined.

In short, the push to promote indigenous knowledge cannot be allowed to fail at any level for fear it will fail at every level.

The project to gain parity for mātauranga Māori throughout science education and funding is detailed in Te Pūtahitangi, A Tiriti-led Science-Policy Approach for Aotearoa New Zealand.

Published last April, it can be seen as a companion to the revolutionary ethno-nationalist report He Puapua and shows how a radical overhaul of the education system could, or should, be implemented.

This overhaul in fact gives more than equity to Māori when it comes to funding, for their research quality gets weighted 2.5 times as heavily as does research from non-Māori. This is likely to translate into big differences in research funding.  Not even in the U.S. will the NSF and NIH prioritize grants and research evaluations based on ethnicity. The NIH tried to do that, but stopped the practice when it became public and was seen as unfair. One possibility is to fund only projects that involve Māori scientists. But since there’s a paucity of Māori scientists, the NZ initiative is, I think, likely to shake out as “no funding except for projects that combine modern science with MM.”

While the University of Auckland touts how wonderful it is and how much of a world-class research institute it will be, it and the NZ government is simultaneously ensuring that the research quality and reputation of the entire country will go into the dumper. And it’s largely done out of guilt, for equity alone simply cannot justify these actions. Robin DiAngelo would make a pile in New Zealand!

In the next installment (not for a while), I’ll give some examples of MM “ways of knowing” that have been touted as scientific.

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.

Paper in Cell demands that the NIH fund more black scientists; blames racism for disparity. Part 2.

February 5, 2021 • 1:45 pm

Yesterday I wrote the first part of my analysis of the following “op-ed” that was published in Cell. The point of the paper is clear from its title. Click on the screenshot to read it.


Yesterday I addressed the disparity in funding rates between black and white investigators submitting grants to the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—a disparity that is quite substantial (black “principal investigators”, or “PIs”, are funded at only 55% of the rate of white ones). The article above both implicitly and explicitly attributes this disparity to racism: structural racism in science as a whole, racism in the National Institutes of Health, and racism of those people who review and score the grants and decide which ones deserve funding.

Yet the only relevant study addressing the issue of grant evaluation shows no disparity between black and white investigators (or male and female investigators) in ratings given grants. The authors of the study above ignored that finding, though they surely knew about it.  They also ignored a study showing a likely reason for the disparity that has nothing to do with racism: black investigators tend to submit proposals in areas of research that are generally not well funded. (That’s often applied research.) A large part of the disparity is thus due to a disparity of research interests, not to racism.

Further, an even larger amount of the disparity is due to the past record of investigators: papers published, quality of work, types of funding, and so on. While background differences may reflect past racism, this is not an issue of discrimination by the NIH, but a “pipeline problem”: a lack of opportunity for minorities early in life, depriving their members of the ability to build good curricula vitae later in life.

As I also noted, my view has always been to favor affirmative action in hiring, both of students and professors, as well as in other professions. But I think that form of preference has to stop at some point in one’s career, and to me a logical place for scientists is when they begin their first academic job. At that point they’ve been found to be qualified to enter the “science club”, and from then on I think that fairness demands that one see the playing field as level and that preferential treatment should stop.  That does not mean that minority faculty don’t deserve mentorship or consideration of special problems they may have, only that they should be given the respect of being treated identically to everyone else, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or race.

Stevens et al., however, disagree. They argue that the palpable racism of the NIH and its reviewers—a racism for which there’s no evidence—mandate profound changes in how the grants of African-Americans are reviewed. (They don’t mention other groups like Hispanics in their piece.) These grants, they argue, should be given preferential treatment. And if they’re not, the authors claim that this is itself racism.

Here’s an example of one of their recommendations and their response to how it’s addressed. The authors are requesting that the numerical scores given to NIH grants by reviewers, which are the overwhelming criterion for whether a grant is funded, take into account the racial diversity of the group of investigators applying. (Nearly all my own grants, by the way, had only myself as the researchers, with unnamed graduate and undergraduate students put into the budget since they hadn’t been hired.)

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.

No, the “wrong” answer isn’t automatically racist because you can argue that diversity of researchers is not a good criterion for grant quality. It is also arguable whether the mission of the NIH should include social engineering as well as promoting good science, and whether equity should have already been engineered before people apply for grants.

Here are some of the changes Stevens et al. wish to make in the NIH system of awarding grants:

  • Diversity of the investigator team should be a score-driving criterion in NIH grant review. This includes race/ethnicity and other forms of diversity such as gender, sexual orientation, and disability.
  • Diverse teams should be prioritized for funding. Until there is no NIH racial funding disparity, all applications from Black PIs must be discussed. These applications should be automatically slated for discussion, prior to the review meeting by an automated system or the scientific review officer (SRO)
  • Program officers/program directors (POs/PDs) should be encouraged and empowered to reevaluate grants of Black PIs that score above the funding pay-line and bring these grants forward to council for funding. We calculate that an average of only ∼2 additional R01 applications from Black PIs would need to be funded per institute to achieve racial equity.
  • More Black PIs should be included on study sections. NIH should institute a minimum number of Black reviewers on each panel and publish a timeline over which this number will represent the US population. We note that some, often in the majority, may voice that this may lead to an unmanageable burden on Black PIs. Yet, the “race tax” is most problematic for service that is not career enhancing. Service on an NIH panel is universally viewed as career enhancing and prestigious, and panel invitations can also be declined. The pool of Black reviewers available for each panel could also be increased if NIH adopted suggestions in the “Beyond 2020: A Vision and Pathway for NIH,” which recommends that narrowly defined organ- and disease-centric panels be replaced with panels that are broader in scope.

    This seems unfair to me, though of course all forms of affirmative action can seem “unfair” to those who are passed over in favor of minorities. What I mean is that preferential treatment of investigators should stop when they are hired as faculty in the first place. Grants should be evaluated completely race-free. (One way to do this, which I mention below, is to eliminate all clues to ethnicity from grant proposals, which in principle should ensure fairness. I favor attempts to do this.)

    You can argue that my point of view is wrong, but it’s the one I take when judging fairness. Giving extra attention to grants from African-Americans, including mandatory discussion of there’s a black PI but not a white one, is unfair. Likewise with the “mandatory reevaluation” of grants of black PIs but not white ones. Anonymity of proposals would also make that completely superfluous—unless you don’t want a “I don’t see color” system but an “I do see color and want to favor it” system. Stevens et al. seem to favor the latter option.

    I do agree that we need more minority reviewers and panelists to ensure that the credibility of our commitment to equality of opportunity be maintained, although my experience is that race and gender are not very useful ways of bringing different views of “quality” to the table. Rather, minority reviewers show our commitment to equal opportunity without promulgating unfairness, and also help ensure that if any racism creeps into the discussions (I have to admit I haven’t seen any in my many years of NIH funding), it will be more easily called out.

    In the end, Stevens et al. provide a list of things that all scientists involved in the reviewing system should do:

    • Score grants of Black faculty well
    • Rescue grants of Black faculty to ensure they are discussed.
    • Consider diversity when scoring the investigator team and innovation.
    • Learn what racism is, especially topics such as “systemic racism,” “racism,” and “antiracism.”
    • Call out and stop all racist statements in review panels and elsewhere. Do not let racist comments pass.
    • Include Black faculty in scientific collaborations and write papers and grants with Black faculty.

      The last two deserve consideration, though in my entire scientific career I have never heard anything remotely close to a racist or sexist statement uttered on a grant review or in a panel. The panel administrators, who are scientists, are chosen for their fairness and competence, and would shut down anything like that in a second. And remember, I entered the system in the early 1980s.

      Including minority faulty in collaborations (#6) is fine, as it’s a form of affirmative action that doesn’t seem unfair, since you get to choose your collaborator and can collaborate with whomever you want. But I would say “Consider including black faculty. . .” as it should not be mandatory. In fact, there are no black evolutionary biologists who work on speciation in Drosophila, so this was never an option for me.

      The first three actions represent preferential treatment of grants based on race, and may be illegal. In fact, “score grants of Black faculty well” is invidious because it means “give good scores to proposals from all Black investigators, regardless of the proposal’s quality” rather than “treat these proposals fairly”. At any rate, I think grants should be treated equally, and even reviewed with the names taken off of them if that is possible (sometimes it’s easy to guess whose grant you’re reviewing). If grants were reviewed blindly at both ends, any accusations of racism would be moot.

      As for learning what racism is, and reading about “systemic racism and antiracism” (#4), yes, I’ve done that, and surely all academics now should understand these terms. But I suspect Stevens et al, based on the rest of their op-ed, have a specific definition of these terms, and one that corresponds to their meaning in Critical Race Theory. And to that I object, for that’s a form of indoctrination into an ideology. All we need to know about racism and grant reviewing is this:  investigators should be judged by the content of their proposals, not by the color of their skin.


      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:

      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: