Disparities in Grant Awards at the National Institutes of Health (NIH)

328 A 2011 study on “Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Awards,” (the “Ginther report”) (1) concluded that the likelihood that black applicants would be awarded NIH research funding was 10 percentage points below whites. This report has stimulated tremendous discussion in many sectors, led to conversations within NIH leadership on the need for renewed efforts to increase diversity in our nation’s biomedical research workforce, and afforded SACNAS an opportunity to address NIH on these critical issues.

Data Analysis

In 2008, concerns over the success of minority scientists’ applications prompted NIH to commission Discovery Logic/Thomson Reuters to conduct an analysis of the NIH IMPAC II grant database (a database of information on extramural applications and awards). The researchers matched the data from IMPAC II with data from U.S. Department of Education IPEDS organizational information, U.S. National Science Foundation Doctoral Record File (DRF) PhD degree information, DRF and American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) Faculty Roster race/ethnicity information, MEDLINE publication data, and Web of Science citation information. They evaluated 83,188 grant applications submitted to NIH during the period 2000–2006. This is a lengthy and elaborate analysis; the detailed methodology can be found in the additional 25 pages of supporting online material (2).

The number of applications from underrepresented PhD investigators in the study was very low relative to other groups: 1,149 (1.38%) Black investigators, 2,657 (3.19%) Hispanic and 41 (0.05%) Native American. By comparison, 13,481 (16.21%) applications were submitted by Asian investigators and 58,124 (69.87%) by Whites. (Table S2 from [2]).

The authors considered nativity and citizenship of the applicants as follows: “An applicant’s citizenship was derived from the DRF, and the citizenship variables refer to citizenship status at the time of receipt of the doctorate. Nativity was derived from the DRF citizenship variable along with information from IMPAC II. If an NIH applicant was not matched to the DRF, but received all of their [sic] degrees from non-US institutions, they [sic] were classified as a non-citizen.”

Using this additional information, the number of Native U.S. citizen applications was reduced to 929 applications (2.08%) from Asian investigators, 586 (1.31%) from Black investigators, and 950 (2.12%) from Hispanic investigators. (Figure S3 from [2]). Not only are Native American applicants underrepresented overall, but also most of the data on Native American scientists in this report was suppressed due to the low numbers.

A complex data analysis used five models to control for the applicant’s educational background, country of origin, training, previous research awards, publication record, and employer characteristics, resulting in Black investigators’ probability of receiving a first R01 research project grant being 10% lower than other groups. The methodology used in the report did not detect significant disparities for other groups.

NIH Proposals for Change

NIH Director Francis S. Collins and Deputy Director Lawrence A. Tabak immediately responded to the Ginther report with a framework for action and a call for “…weaving a new, richer, and more beautiful research tapestry from all of the available threads…”(3).

Their proposal increases the number of early career reviewers, including those from underrepresented populations; examines the grant review process for bias; develops interventions; improves support for grant applicants; and gathers expert advice on additional action steps (4).

NIH also recently held a meeting on “Brainstorming Ideas for Conducting Studies with the Peer Review System Workshop: Strategies for Enhancing the Diversity of the Biomedical Research Workforce,” which can be viewed by videocast (5).

SACNAS Recommendations to Reduce Disparities

SACNAS president Dr. Ernest Márquez presented SACNAS’ recommendations on increasing participation of URM scientists in STEM to the Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) of NIH in February 2012. President Márquez stressed that NIH should develop more programs to encourage URMs to apply for NIH grants and fellowships; provide annual progress reports of Hispanic/Native American/African American R01 grantees; and create a review orientation process focused on constructive critical evaluation to encourage resubmission of R01 grant applications (6).

In addition, President Márquez requested that all NIH training grants have diversity recruitment plans and demonstrated success with such plans as a prerequisite for funding; that NIH do much more to encourage URMs to apply for NIH fellowships and grants; that NIH work to improve the institutional climate for URMs at major research universities by requiring diversity training of its grantees and by addressing faculty diversity; and that NIH conduct analyses of other grant mechanisms to see if there are systemic issues within the review or grant award processes.

SACNAS Role in Reducing Disparities

The NIH has partnered with SACNAS for more than 20 years to encourage greater participation of URM scientists and by funding SACNAS’ and other programs. Dr. Robert Barnhill, SACNAS vice president for Science Policy and Strategic Initiatives, commented that on a continuing basis, SACNAS recommends suitable scientists to serve on review panels and committees at the NIH, NSF, USDA, and AAAS, among others. In addition, NIH Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak visited the SACNAS Summer Leadership Institute in July 2011 in Washington, DC, to exchange ideas on how to enhance the participation of URM scientists in NIH programs. He encouraged the appropriate Leadership Institute participants to volunteer to serve on review panels.

What Can We Take Home from the Ginther Report?

The Ginther report shows that participation in training programs significantly improved subsequent R01 award probability across race/ethnic groups. Students and early scientists should learn the importance of being involved in the processes of grant writing and review early in their careers. Applying for fellowships, programs, and small grants are ways of preparing for future research careers. It is important to apply to programs outside the URM “target opportunities” in order to learn the specific requirements and mechanisms of, and approaches to, general programs. NIH review committee service was found to improve the R01 award probability and is also a valuable professional development experience.

Underrepresentation of Black, Hispanic, and Native American investigators among the recipients of R01 funding is still abysmal. The Ginther report substantiates troubling disparities for Black investigators and raises many unanswered questions. Much more must be done to address these disparities and related issues. Going forward, SACNAS will continue to play a leadership role in this regard.

About the Author

Dr. Estela A. Gavosto is Associate Professor of Mathematics and Associate Director of the Office for Diversity in Science Training at the University of Kansas and an alumna of the 2011 SACNAS Summer Leadership Institute.


1. Ginther DK, Shaffer WT, Schnell J, Massimore B, Liu F, Haak LL, Kington R. Race, Ethnicity and NIH Research Awards. 2011. Science. 333: 1015-1019.

2. Ginther DK, Shaffer WT, Schnell J, Massimore B, Liu F, Haak LL, Kington R. Race, Ethnicity and NIH Research Awards. 2011. Science. 333: 1015-1019, supporting online material available at www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/333/6045/1015/DC1.

3. Tabak L, Collins FS. Weaving a Richer Tapestry in Biomedical Science. 2011. Science 333: 940-941.

4. NIH-commissioned study identifies gaps in NIH funding success rates for black researchers, NIH News, Thursday, August 18, 2011.

5. “Brainstorming Ideas for Conducting Studies with the Peer Review System Workshop: Strategies for Enhancing the Diversity of the Biomedical Research Workforce,” NIH VideoCasting, Wednesday, March 28, 2012, 9:15:00 AM.

6. “Enhancing Opportunities & Retention of URM STEM Scientists,” A Presentation to Advisory Committee to the Director, NIH. Ernest Marquez, PhD, President, SACNAS Board of Directors, February 14, 2012.


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