University of Kansas economist Donna Ginther made waves in 2011 with her studies showing racial disparities in research grant awards, which led the National Institutes of Health to start an initiative to address the issue. She says the problem isn’t necessarily bias on the part of those who award grants but lack of mentors and training for diverse communities.
Ginther recently sat down with KCUR’s Alex Smith to talk about her latest work on the issue, which factors in gender. She and her colleagues looked at NIH R01 grants awarded between 2000 and 2006.
Among the findings: there seems to be little difference in the success rate of white men and women at receiving grants.
GINTHER: The disadvantage is more along race lines than it is along gender. So there are some instances that women of color are less likely to resubmit grants. They get rejected, and then they never show up in the sample again. They may be more likely to become discouraged in terms of getting the funding. Grants - like anything in academia – publishing papers, you have to deal with a lot of rejection, and so you have to take no and then try again in order to be successful.
We see some evidence that there’s a double disadvantage for women of color, so the race issue is still a problem and still an area of investigation and trying to understand what’s going on, and NIH is actively doing that.
Race and gender are not listed on the application. Is there any evidence that people are rejected or awarded grants because of their gender or race?
People do not observe race and gender, but there are not many men named Donna, so if they see my name in a grant, and they see “Donna,” then they’ll assume that I’m a woman. And you can do that to a certain extent with race as well. Certain Asian names like Kim, for example, or Jong, would signify Asian.
So those types of names may indicate race, in a way, but we don’t know that it’s the names that are creating inequality. I don’t think that our research show that there’s a lot of evidence for that.
What’s going on here? Is there a need for more training as far as applying for grants goes? Is it lack of familiarity with the process? What’s happening?
It changes over time because as more research comes online, we have a better understanding of it. What I would say right now is that prior productivity matters quite a bit, so how much you’ve published and where you’ve published matters in terms of your success in terms of future funding.
I think also that there’s tacit knowledge about how to get a grant together that’s really important. The NIH is addressing this through creating a mentoring network - the BUILD network – so that young researchers of color get access to mentors who can help them develop their proposals to the best of their ability.
And then one of the other things that have come out of our study is that there are just really small numbers, especially among blacks or African Americans, and so doing things to boost the number and the diversity of biomedical researchers at the PhD level and the postdoctoral level. I think having more diversity going into the system, as opposed to just the few that we’re left with at the stage of becoming an independent investigator.
I feel like I’ve heard a lot about the lack of mentorship in STEM careers for diverse communities. How significant is that for the long-term career of a researcher?
I was involved in a mentoring experiment in the economics profession. Women tend to be underrepresented in economics, and so in 2004 we started a randomized controlled trial of mentoring, and we found that mentoring increased the number of publications, the quality of those publications and the number of federal grants that the people in the treatment group received.
I’m a firm believer that mentoring matters quite a bit. And people who get mentored tend to get mentored by people who look like them. And so I think that having more mentors and being more deliberate about mentoring can only have positive benefits.
Alex Smith is a reporter for KCUR, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team. You can reach him on Twitter @AlexSmithKCUR.