Institutional Discrimination 101 – (Not) Blinded With Science

In science, it pays to be white:

“Black scientists in the US are much less likely to be awarded funding than their white counterparts, says a US government research-funding agency.

The National Institutes of Health said that out of every 100 funding applications it considered, 30 were granted to white applicants.

This compared with 20 to black applicants.

The study, published in the journal Science, found the gap could not be explained by education or experience.

It suggested small differences in access to resources and mentoring early in a scientist’s career could accumulate, leaving black researchers at a disadvantage.

Blacks make up 13% of the US population, but only 1.2% of lead researchers on biomedical studies are black.

The NIH said concerns over this prompted it to commission a study, which was led by University of Kansas economics professor Donna Ginther.

The research – which was published on Thursday – examined submissions for NIH grant applications by more than 40,000 researchers from 2000-2006.

The study found that 71% of grant-seekers said they were white; 1.5% said they were black; 3.3% were Latino; 13.5% were Asian; and 11% were identified as “other” or “unknown”.

NIH director Francis Collins said it would take action to address the potential for “insidious bias” in the grant process.

“This situation is not acceptable,” he told reporters in a conference call. “The data is deeply troubling.”

When applicants send proposals to the NIH, they identify their race, ethnicity and gender.

This information is removed from the application before the materials are sent to review.

Mr Collins said it was possible that reviewers could guess the race or ethnicity of an applicant by looking at names or where they trained.”

We know, from other similar studies on job applicants that this is exactly what happens, consciously or not. Applicants with African-American-sounding names are much less likely to be interviewed, compared to whites with similar backgrounds on every aspect. This is why some of them modify their names to remove the African-American aspect and pass for white, at least until the interview.

Always keep in mind: institutional discrimination is racism without racists. It is pervasive, far-reaching and has major consequences in terms of opportunities and life-chances. But because it is largely invisible, it is hard to detect and correct, especially because most Whites do not believe it even exists.

2 thoughts on “Institutional Discrimination 101 – (Not) Blinded With Science

  1. This is a very interesting piece. However, the statistics seem to be giving a different picture than that which the article portrays.

    Correct me if I’m wrong here, but…

    if 71% of grant seekers were white and only 30 out of 100 of the NIH’s grants were awarded to white applicants, that means that whites have an acceptance rate of 42.25%.

    and if black applicants only represent 1.5% of all applicants, but are awarded 20 out of 100 grants, then they have a 1333.33% success rate. In other words, they are highly over-represented compared to their percentage of the applicants, or even compared to their 13% share of the US population.

    I’m not sure that the biomedical data are relevant without a lot more context because it is a snapshot of only one field. But even if we accept them as representative, if they also had 1.5% of applications from black applicants, a 1.2% share still represents an 80% acceptance rate.

    Don’t get me wrong. I do believe that there is some kind of institutional bias at work in broader society and in academic institutions. This is clear from the low application rates for black applicants.

    However, the discrimination or bias does not seem to be at the NIH, which the article suggests by noting that reviewers might be able to guess the race of an applicant from their name or where they studied.

    If anything, the NIH seems to be over-compensating for the low numbers of black applicants by accepting a higher proportion of them than others.

    Clearly we need a commitment to advocacy and action to overcome racism and discrimination. But if we are to succeed, we need to identify the true roots of the problem. Long before the stage of nationally funded grants like NIH awards, black Americans are under-represented in advanced graduate studies, even if they seem to be closing the gap in terms of undergraduate education, which is arguably the new high school.

    If we want to see better application rates at NIH, we need to start with elementary and high schools to ensure more equality of opportunity and education.

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