Study: Racial disparity prevalent in biomedical research funding

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The lead author of a new study that showed a clear racial gap in funding for biomedical research suggests that the disparity is not deliberate, but still does damage to both the unfunded researchers and U.S. healthcare on the whole.

“Diversity in biomedical research has all these implications for health outcomes. People are much more comfortable talking to doctors who look like them,” lead author Donna K. Ginther, PhD, a a professor of economics at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, told Healthcare Technology Management ( HTM).

“And to the extent that the careers of those medical scientists are being affected by this grant disparity, it’s going to hold back closing these gaps in health outcomes that we see by reason of ethnicity," she said. "And furthermore, it also says we’re not making use of the best and brightest minds at the disposal of biomedical research.”

Her study, followed closely in the mainstream press since its Aug. 18 release in the journal Science, showed that, based on a survey of 80,000 grant applications to the National Institutes of Health from 40,000 researchers, 29 percent of grants from white applicants made it through while only 16 percent from black applicants were given the green light.

In commentary accompanying the study in Science, NIH director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, and NIH principal deputy director Lawrence A. Tabak, DDS, PhD, called the findings “unacceptable” and pledged to take immediate steps to rectify the disparity.

According to an NIH statement, one of the steps will be the establishment of a program called “Early Career Reviewer,” in which junior faculty are encouraged to participate in peer-review panels so they get to see how the process works firsthand.

Ginther thinks that’s a spot-on solution, as it get to the root of the racial funding gap—which she believes is not intentional on anyone’s part.

“What is happening is that science is not a huge community, and some people are more ingrained in the professional networks than others. Doing things like sitting in on panels will allow people to expand their networks,” Ginther told HTM. “People in my profession think that, if you just do the work, everything will come out alright. That’s not the case. This is a marketplace of ideas and, if you don’t have the networks that allow you to actually extend your ideas into the scientific community, you’re not going to get the recognition and, apparently, the funding, to do your work.”

For the full study, click here