Systemic racism reflected in grant allocations, say researchers

The issue of diversity in scientific fields has recently come to the fore with the August 9 signing of the CHIPS and Science Act, a $280 billion package that invests in research and development, primarily targeting the semi-industry. -drivers. The legislation contains several provisions aimed at diversifying the STEM workforce, including the creation of a position of Director of Diversity at the NSF. In this emerging environment, many called on the NSF to begin implementing measures to reduce the impacts of any racial bias in the grantmaking process. These measures include double-blind review of grants – where all identifiers of submitting scientists are removed – and bias training for all reviewers.

But Liu and Ivey are skeptical of the real impact of these measures. “Race and a person’s core values ​​are inextricably linked…and no amount of bias training will change a person’s core values,” Ivey says. Liu notes that a true double-blind review is impossible to achieve. Even if the name is erased, “it’s really easy to figure out who the researcher is” from the summary of the application and the list of references, she says. Chen and Kahanamoku point out that the NIH tried both bias training and blind review procedures after the 2011 study found similar racial tendencies within the agency. However, analysis of 2019 NIH data shows that the same disparities still exist and, for some groups, have worsened. “NSF should view the past 10 years at NIH as a cautionary tale of well-intentioned solutions that failed to create meaningful progress,” Chen said.


Aradhna Tripati, one of Chen’s co-authors from the University of California, Los Angeles, would like to see the NSF conduct a comprehensive analysis of its public and private data to look for inequities in science funding.

So what could change the status quo? Ivey would like to see the composition of all review panels represent the diversity of the community whose grants they judge: “It’s not about quotas, it’s about representation of views and values.” Kahanamoku agrees. Measures such as diversity training miss the root causes of disparities, they say. “What a person sees as a scientific question worth investigating changes a lot depending on their personal background and the values ​​they uphold.” Currently, funding structures do not take these differences into account.

To illustrate the idea, Kahanamoku turns to his own research on the impact of climate change on small Hawaiian communities. The questions they explore are very specific to these communities, such as the effect of climate change on the fish production of a specific lake. Another scientist – one without a Hawaiian background, for example – might instead ask: what are the indicators of water quality for this region and how is that changing over time? Although both sets of questions relate to climate change, studies have shown that different research settings have different probabilities of receiving funding. At the NIH, for example, investigators found that proposals deemed to be of basic or general interest were more likely to be funded than those deemed relevant to a single community. The former rarely had black IPs, while the latter often had black IPs.

Regardless of the outcome of the peer review of the two equity-funding studies, Chen and his team hope to see a reform of grant-making systems. They know it will be difficult and will take time, but they say the appetite for change is palpable. Early-career scientists — and especially those from underrepresented groups — are “desperate for a giant overhaul of the scientific enterprise,” says Kahanamoku. Chen agrees. “I wish I never had to do this job,” she says. “It had both a physical and a mental impact on me.” But, she said, no one else had taken over. “That data had been there for years, in plain sight.”

They were asked their response to Chen’s findings et al., an NSF media representative presented a statement prepared by the agency. The statement says NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan has made addressing racial disparities in funding “one of the top priorities for the agency’s progress, and [he] keep taking it [matter] seriously.” As part of this priority, the NSF has launched a new initiative for 2023 – called GRANTED (Growing Research Access for Nationally Transformative Equity and Diversity) – which aims to reduce the various barriers that minority researchers may face. when applying for funding. The statement ended by noting that the NSF recognizes “there are still many [work] TO DO.”

Corrigendum (November 8, 2022): A previous version incorrectly stated that the PI discussed by Ivey was a person of color. They were white.

James V. Hayes