NIH launches grant program to bridge funding rate gap between black and white researchers | Science

After rejecting an idea last year, some National Institutes of Health (NIH) institutes are taking a new approach to boost the success rate of black scientists and researchers from other underrepresented groups seeking research grants . A program to diversify the NIH workforce could award up to $20 million a year to neuroscience, addiction, and mental health investigators from minority groups.

The program will create a new class of NIH standard R01 research grant designed to “encourage a more diverse pool of PIs [principal investigators]said Walter Koroshetz, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), at a recent meeting. NINDS is launching the program, aimed at new NPs and those whose labs are at risk of folding, in conjunction with the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). In 2021, the three institutes teamed up on a policy with similar goals that the NIH later withdrew over concerns it would violate federal anti-discrimination laws.

Onlookers hope the new program will help close a long-standing gap between NIH funding success rates for black scientists versus white scientists, at least in areas of research supported by the three institutes. “I’m very happy,” says Kafui Dzirasa, a Duke University neurobiologist and psychiatrist who urged the NIH to take direct action to close the gap. The program “really has the potential to move the needle.”

The special R01s come as the NIH released data suggesting progress in reducing the funding disparity over the past 2 years. In fiscal year 2021, the odds of a black candidate receiving at least one new R01 was 24.4%, or 2.2 percentage points less than for a white candidate, compared to a gap of about seven to nine points from 2013 to 2019 (see graph) . (The gap in pass rates for all R01-equivalent applications, which was about nine percentage points in 2013, has fallen to five points.) “We are encouraged,” says Marie Bernard, NIH director for the diversity of the scientific workforce, who co-authored a June 14 blog post on the new data with NIH extramural chief Michael Lauer.

The lower R01 success rate of black scientists shocked the research community when it was identified by a 2011 study led by economist Donna Ginther. Despite a series of new NIH programs aimed at attracting minorities to research and improving training and mentorship, as well as more rewards for black NPs, the “Ginther divide” has remained, leading many to blame racial prejudices.

Some observers, including Dzirasa, have argued that the NIH’s 27 institutes and centers should bridge the gap by using their leeway to fund applications that score well in peer review but fall just outside. the funding threshold; the proposal could be in a high priority research area or could bring a diverse perspective. The NIH could close the gap, some say, if each institute awarded only two additional grants each year to black scientists, at a cost of $32 million per year.

Last year, NINDS, NIDA and NIMH released a policy to achieve this. This would have allowed investigators from underrepresented groups, including black people[ck] and Hispanic Scientists, People with Disabilities, and People from Underprivileged Backgrounds – to check a box that would flag their candidacy to program officers.

Last fall, however, the NIH overruled the advisory over “legal” concerns that tying demographics to proposals “could have given the impression that … applications supporting scientists from underrepresented groups would automatically be priorities for funding”, the agency wrote. Officials stress that the NIH cannot make funding decisions based on race, gender or ethnicity.

NIH Funding Disparities for New R01 Grants

Ratio of applicants with at least one funded proposal to total number of applicants. (Race or ethnicity is self-identified.)

(Graphic) C. Bickel/Science; (Data) NIH Office for Extramural Research

The new program, announced June 9, passes the legal rally because it aims to improve diversity “in a very broad sense,” Lauer says. An NIH spokesperson notes that while the program “encourages” applications from researchers from underrepresented groups, “it is not exclusive – all new researchers and at-risk researchers are eligible to apply.” (The NIH defines “at risk” as a PI who will not have NIH grants if their high-quality proposal is not funded.) NIH officials also note that the program is part of the agency’s efforts. to comply with a congressional mandate to do more to support early career researchers seeking their first NIH grants.

All proposals to the new program will be reviewed with other R01s through standard review sections, but will then compete for special funding: up to $5 million per year for 12-15 grants each to NIDA and the NIMH, and up to $10 million. for 25 scholarships to NINDS.

Dzirasa sees the program achieving the same goal as last year’s NINDS policy: to allow program officers to fund grants from Blacks and other minorities who just missed the funding threshold for the regular grant pool. . “It gives them the opportunity to correct the biases they know are in their system,” he says.

Some researchers have concerns about the approach. According to addiction researcher Michael Taffe of the University of California, San Diego, one concern is that top-notch applications from black IPs that the NIH would have funded anyway will be moved into the special program, which could allow the agency to fund weaker proposals from white IPs, he says. “It’s less good than correcting the bias in the first place so that all open competitions are actually open and fair,” says Taffe.

And Dzirasa says the program would be more effective if it were in place across NIH. “The NIH as a whole should engage,” he says.

As for the recent increase in funding rates for black scientists, Taffe thinks the most obvious explanation is that institutes are funding more grants from black scientists who have narrowly missed the payline. Lauer, however, notes that “any such analysis is going to be very difficult,” in part because not all institutes use strict paylines. Lauer also notes that there are so few black IPs overall — around 300 in 2021 — that even minor changes in grantmaking can have a large statistical impact.

Regardless of the numbers, “we don’t take a victory lap” when it comes to improving the diversity of NIH recipients, Bernard says. “We still have a lot of work to do.”

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