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Researchers should assist in policies to narrow NIH funding gap of minority scientists, leading labor economist says

Monday, February 06, 2017

LAWRENCE — Mentoring scientists and using evidence-based evaluations of the National Institutes of Health's diversity programs will likely be key in trying to bridge the gap of racial disparities among NIH awards, according to University of Kansas labor economist and one of the topic's leading researchers.

Donna Ginther, professor of economics, has written an essay published in the journal Cultures, a publication of the American Society for Microbiology, that advocates for having researchers assist in the design and implementation of policies to address diversity in bio- and medical-scientific fields.

"As the NIH continues to address diversity challenges, it is critically important to identify and enhance policies that work and to drop those that are ineffective," Ginther said.

As a labor economist, Ginther has led groundbreaking research on identifying gaps of racial diversity in awarding of NIH awards. A 2011 NIH-commissioned study she led found that black scientists were much less likely to receive NIH grants than white counterparts. The NIH, the world's foremost biomedical funding agency, in response to that study announced new initiatives to combat the discrepancy.

Also, as part of a follow-up examination of the issue, Ginther led a 2016 study in the journal Academic Medicine that found the race, not gender, appeared to be the most significant factor influencing the award of an NIH Research Project Grant.

In her Cultures essay, Ginther said that the NIH has conducted studies on the peer review process for grants, such as using anonymized proposals, which might lead to some important insights.

However, she said, investigating the influence of other broader factors will likely lead to more targeted policies that will improve the success of underrepresented minority scientists in NIH funding.

She recommended investigating the influence of the NIH's Early Career Review program, or ECR, that recruited scientists who didn't receive NIH Type 1, or R01, awards, to determine if participants in the ECR program had more success with NIH funding than nonparticipants.

Ginther also advocates for gaining a better understanding of the proposal-scoring process for NIH awards and determining where and how scientists' careers diverge, especially among mentoring programs, as a way to develop more targeted and effective policies in bridging the gap.

Photo: Professor Donna Ginther gives a presentation in this file photo from KU Marketing Communications.