Inequality in science, race edition

I’m surprised none of the science-related blogs I read have picked up on this story yet(which has been reported by the NYT, as well as Democracy Now), so I guess I’ll have to do it myself. From a study just published in Science showing that black scientists less likely to receive NIH-funds than white scientists:

Although proposals with strong priority scores were equally likely to be funded regardless of race, we find that Asians are 4 percentage points and black or African-American applicants are 13 percentage points less likely to receive NIH investigator-initiated research funding compared with whites. After controlling for the applicant’s educational background, country of origin, training, previous research awards, publication record, and employer characteristics, we find that black applicants remain 10 percentage points less likely than whites to be awarded NIH research funding.

That’s unfortunately unsurprising, but sad nonetheless. If I understand the paper properly (and there’s no guarantee that I have, so take the following discussion with all the skepticism it’s due), it seems to indicate that a lot of the discrimination isn’t directly related to bias in the selection, but to bias in career advancement elsewhere (access to resources). That’s probably a large chunk of it, and certainly racial discrimination as well as cultural hurdles aren’t improbable. But AFAICT from the study, even taking into account all of these, there’s still a remaining bias. So is it possible that there’s bias in the selection process itself?

My main question, which the article doesn’t answer, is how the NIH would know the race of their applicants; and if it doesn’t, what the factor that leads to this discrimination could be. A particular focus in the research? Maybe it’s not so much the race of the scientist that’s being discriminated against; minority researchers often try to fill the gap of lacking research about the special circumstances of the groups they belong to, so possibly it was the “race” of the proposal that was being discriminated against (I hope that sentence makes sense; obviously proposals don’t have a race, but may have a “non-standard” (AKA non-white) focus that could be identified as less-than by subconscious bias or even outright bigotry). This may also explain the much lower citation count (but doesn’t explain the much higher citation count for Asian and Hispanic authored papers; it would be necessary to see whether Black, Asian, and Hispanic authors are comparably likely to focus on minority-relevant research topics, and whether minority-focused subjects correlate with citation count to figure out what’s going on there). If the bias is indeed related to research topics, it would be very difficult to circumvent subconscious bias, since there would be no possibility of blind applications for obvious reasons.

The study shows a few other interesting things aside from that main point. For one, the ridiculously low number of Native scientists in biomedical research (only 41?! That’s fucking tragic in and of itself). Two, it seems to me from the data that the reason Asians and Hispanics don’t show the same disparities might not be because they’re not discriminated against. I can’t precisely parse what it says on this subject, but doesn’t it seem to say that Hispanics and especially Asians outperform whites on certain measures, but that those don’t translate in proportionately higher rates of proposal acceptance? It’s either that, or it says that these measures are irrelevant for proposals by non-blacks, and only seem to matter for blacks, who have the lowest citation and publication counts, and the fewest last-authored papers as well. *confused*

4 comments on “Inequality in science, race edition

  1. David Marjanović says:

    In the natural sciences, the last author is the one who owns the lab, perhaps provided the basic idea, may not even have read the paper (in extreme cases), and… provided the funding. I suppose discrimination during career advancement or before has started a vicious circle within academia.

    BTW, the text of your posts isn’t displayed where the computer thinks it is. To highlight it, I have to drag the cursor along two lines under the line I want to highlight, and all links don’t work.

    So, I can’t read the paper or the news articles, I can only contribute anecdotal observations. African-Americans who visit the annual meetings of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology? One or two, out of a total number of 1000 to 2000 participants, maybe 2/3 of whom are US-based.

  2. Jadehawk says:

    you seriously need to stop using IE; it works fine in all other browsers (except the dividing bar overlaps with text in Opera, which looks stoopid; who designs layouts that don’t work cross-platform!? anyway…)

    here are the links in plaintext:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/19/science/19nih.html?_r=1
    http://www.democracynow.org/2011/8/19/headlines
    http://www.sciencemag.org/content/333/6045/1015.full

  3. David Marjanović says:

    I’ll try upgrading to IE9 first :-þ

    Thanks for the links. The first says there is such a thing as “a historically black university”. I suppose that explains something. Let me guess: these universities tend to be poor and therefore to have a worse reputation or no reputation at all (they’re unknown/no-name)?

    Actually, I’m already surprised that the names of the institutions aren’t removed during the review of an NIH grant. That can hardly help producing a vicious circle in which the Ivy League gets all the money.

    I once submitted a manuscript to a journal that does double-blind peer review: even the authors’ names are removed. At the NIH, that might be a good idea. In my field, it wasn’t — the field is so small that most people recognize each other’s favorite arguments or even their writing style.

    I’ve downloaded the paper and will read it later.

  4. 'Tis Himself says:

    The first says there is such a thing as “a historically black university”. I suppose that explains something. Let me guess: these universities tend to be poor and therefore to have a worse reputation or no reputation at all (they’re unknown/no-name)?

    There are a fair number of historically black universities and colleges. For instance, the University of Alabama is the white school and Alabama State University is the black school. Guess which one gets more funding per student from the state government.

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