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‘Transparent’ NIH scoring fails to address racial disparities


Study finds substantial funding gaps persist between black and white principal investigators

A measure introduced by the National Institutes of Health in the United States in 2009 to make its grantmaking more transparent has not reduced funding disparities between black and white researchers, a study has found. 

The study, published in Science Advances on 3 June by researchers based in Washington, DC, concludes that the Enhanced Peer Review process—introduced to, among other things, prevent reviewers showing a bias in favour of conservative approaches—”absorb, rather than mitigate” racial disparities in preliminary impact scores. Those scores determine which applications are discussed by grant review boards. 

The study looked at investigator-initiated applications for so-called R01 grants by black and white principal investigators reviewed between financial years 2014 and 2016. Black PIs received worse scores on all preliminary scoring criteria than their white peers even when matched for career stage, gender, type of degree, and scientific field. Black PIs were also half as likely as their white counterparts to win funding. 

Although it’s difficult to compare adjudications that predate the new review mechanism with those that came after, the paper’s authors say the results agree with findings from a study of R01 grants from 2000-2006, which showed that the success rate of black PIs was 10.4 percentage points lower than that of white PIs, even after making adjustments to account for differences in educational background, country of origin, training, previous research awards, publication record, and employer characteristics. 

The results also support explanations offered by other studies for racial disparities seen in NIH grants, ranging from black PIs pursuing research in areas that reviewers may not view as high priority, to the cumulative effect of disparities experienced over a researchers’ career, the authors write. They say that further research is needed to evaluate whether such explanations account for racial disparities in preliminary criterion cores.