21% of racial disparities in NIH funding due to research topics

White researchers are 1.7 times more likely to be funded by the National Institutes of Health than black researchers, according to a new study published in Science Advances Oct. 9.

NIH researchers analyzed 2011-15 data from 157,549 funding applications, finding disparate outcomes at three of the six application process stages. The most significant disparity involved research topics, which account for 21 percent of the funding gap. African American/black applicants typically proposed topics that the NIH was less likely to fund, like research at the community and population level, opposed to mechanistic investigations.  

About 1 in 10 applications from black researchers received NIH funding, compared to 1 in 6 for white researchers.

"One really important takeaway is that the actual numbers [of black applicants] is very, very small. Out of the 160,000 applications, some 1.5 percent were from black scientists," study author Hannah Valantine, MD, NIH chief officer for scientific workforce diversity, told STAT.

The researchers aren't sure why certain topics are funded over others. Since scientists are trained to study basic mechanisms, those reviewing applications may favor research that takes a similar approach, George Santangelo, PhD, senior author and director of the NIH's Office of Portfolio Analysis, speculated to STAT

Study authors urged for better mentoring of African American/black researchers and emphasized the need for more applicants. The NIH has introduced initiatives aimed at improving diversity and providing mentoring to researchers from minority backgrounds.

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