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One Reason for Optimism for (White) Female Scientists

One study of a crucial government grant for biomedical research offers many practical lessons.

By Francie Diep


(Photo: clement127/Flickr)

White, female biomedical scientists are as likely to receive one specific, crucial type of government grant, called an R01, as their white, male peers, according to a new study.

While women do tend to get less money from National Institutes of Health R01s — a type of grant that often supplies a large portion of doctors’ and biologists’ funds — that’s because they’re less likely than men to re-apply after getting their first request rejected, according to the study, which was published last month in the journal Academic Medicine. Biomedical scientists of color, on the other hand, seem to face racism in the NIH’s R01 funding process. When compared to peers working at equally prestigious institutes and who’ve published an equivalent number and quality of papers, black and Asian-American scientists are less likely to get their R01 applications approved.

“We find, basically, there’s no bias against women in getting R01s funded,” says Shulamit Kahn, one of the study’s authors and an economist at Boston University who studies female scientists’ careers. “There is racial bias.”

The upshot is that female biologists of color end up with much less R01 funding than their apparently equally qualified peers because they’re hit both by their tendency to apply less often and persistent race-based bias against their applications. Because R01s are so important to labs, not getting one can slow a promising career. “Without an R01, you really cannot be a biomedical researcher,” Kahn says. “It’s very difficult to have a lab without an R01.”

“Basically, there’s no bias against women in getting R01s funded.”

The study doesn’t mean white, female scientists in biomedicine and other fields never face discrimination. Indeed, Kahn’s other research has identified different points in the careers of female scientists, of any color, where they’re likely to suffer from sexism. This latest study just means that, in this one, important aspect, white women are being treated as equals.

The study points to some places where the NIH, whose officials have said they’re committed to diversifying America’s research workforce, can make effective changes. It also underscores the need for the NIH to revise its R01 review procedures to counter (perhaps unconscious) racism among its reviewers. In fact, economists first made this point in 2011, when an NIH-commissioned study found black scientists are one-third less likely to receive R01 grants compared to white scientists with startlingly similar qualifications (going by factors such as the quality graduate schools and the number of grants they’ve previously earned).

The new study’s results suggest that, if the NIH is interested in providing more R01 funding to women of all races, it could do so by nudging women to re-apply more often. “However we can do it as a society, or however the NIH could do it, if they encouraged women to apply more, it would probably be a good thing,” Kahn says. “These are attitudes that are very hard to change, but I think that there have been interventions that can be successful.”

In the past, Kahn worked on a small study that found workshops that taught university professors how to apply for promotions led to more women applying to, and getting, promotions. “Just suggesting, ‘You can do this’ can be quite effective,” she says.

As for improving racism in R01 funding, in 2011, I surveyed black scientists at varying stages in their careers for their ideas about what the NIH and other organizations can do. Manycited mentoring programs and new blinding processes as potential fixes. The NIH has launched some diversity initiatives, including funding for mentoring projects, but experts say it’s too soon to say whether they’ve helped.