Research ArticleSCIENTIFIC COMMUNITY

Topic choice contributes to the lower rate of NIH awards to African-American/black scientists

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Science Advances  09 Oct 2019:
Vol. 5, no. 10, eaaw7238
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaw7238

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  • RE: The findings in "Topic choice contributes to the lower rate of NIH awards to African-America/black scientists"
    • Donna K. Ginther, Professor, Department of Economics & Interim Director, Institute for Policy & Social Research, University of Kansas
    • Other Contributors:
      • Walter T. Schaffer, Senior Scientific Advisor and Special Volunteer, Division of Biomedical Research Workforce, Office of Extramural Research, National Institutes of Health
      • Laurel L. Haak, Executive Director, ORCID
      • Raynard Kington, President, Grinnell College

    To the Editors:

    We read Hoppe et al. “Topic choice contributes to the lower rate of NIH award to African-American/black scientists” in Science Advances October 9, 2019 https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/10/eaaw7238 with great interest.

    We applaud the NIH’s continued investigation into the underlying causes of the black-white funding gap. While it is interesting that topic choice influences whether discussed proposals receive funding, we are concerned that the results of this study are not directly comparable to previous work (1, 2, 3, 4) and could discourage some applicants from investigating important research topics.

    We believe that the mixed sample constructed in Hoppe et al, may be contributing to the reported findings. Previous work has shown that success rates for receiving funding for Type 1 and Type 2 R01s differ considerably raising questions about the meaning of the composite rate in Hoppe et al. Type 2 proposals comprise only 13-15% of total R01-equivalent applications submitted, potentially conflating factors associated with the black-white funding gap that are very different for new and experienced investigators (4). Accordingly, we believe that the decision to combine Type 1 and Type 2 applications in the Hoppe et al. analysis limits the ability to speak to the larger issue of what is driving the black-white funding gap and may contribute to the finding t...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • RE: Deeper than “Research Topic Choice,” A Response to the Persistent NIH Funding Gap for Black Scientists
    • Ayana Jordan, Assistant Professor, Addiction Psychiatrist, Yale University School of Medicine
    • Other Contributors:
      • Carl Hart, Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology, Columbia University

    We read with great interest the report by Hoppe et al.1 The investigators sought to provide an empirical explanation for the disturbing observation that proportionally fewer National Institutes of Health R01 applications submitted by Black investigators are funded compared with other racial groups. One explanation for this result was that Black applicants tended to propose research at the community and population level, rather than at the mechanistic level, which has a higher award rate. Clearly, this is an important study and the results and interpretations have far-reaching implications. Yet, the authors’ discussion—as well as NIH Director Francis S. Collins’ accompanying press release2—contains a glaring omission that could diminish the overall impact of the findings. Neither Hoppe and colleagues nor Dr. Collins discussed the potential role of racial discrimination. Thus, we felt this and other issues warranted further discussion.
    By racial discrimination or racism, we simply mean an action that results in disproportionate unjust or unfair treatment of persons from a specific racial group.3 Malicious intent is not required. What is required is that the treatment must be unjust or unfair, and that such injustice is disproportionately experienced by at least one racial group. Similarly, we do not feel it is helpful to focus on “implicit bias” because such unconscious attitudes may or may not play a role in the act of racial discrimination. In other words, simply hav...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.

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