CEPEDA: Pro-white bias in grant awards? Maybe not

CHICAGO --The widespread headlines about a recent analysis of research funding -- saying that black scientists are less likely to win federal grants -- just don't tell the whole story.When the National Institutes of Health finished taking a look at the race and ethnicity of the applicants who won their most widely awarded investigator-initiated research project grant between 2000 and 2006, it found that applications from black investigators were 13.2 percentage points less likely to be awarded a grant than those from white investigators.

Additionally, according to "Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Awards," the study published last week in the online edition of the journal Science, applications from Asian and Hispanic investigators were 5.4 percentage points and 2.7 percentage points less likely, respectively, to be awarded grants than white investigators.

The results of this study caused outrage, despair and disappointment among those who care about ensuring that diversity -- in the medical and scientific communities, as well as everywhere else -- is made a priority.

Look at it a little differently: Of all the applications evaluated, a whopping 70 percent were from white applicants. Asian investigators submitted 16.2 percent of applications, Hispanics 3.2 percent, and blacks 1.4 percent.

Take it a step further: Non-Hispanic whites represent approximately 65 percent of the U.S. population -- similar to but slightly less than the number of white applicants for NIH research grants -- while blacks represent 14 percent of the country's population and yet were only 1.4 percent of applicants.

If you look at the statistics in only one way, we see bias and fall prey to simplistic views that leave us blaming racism for disparities. And, worse, this leaves no room for addressing root causes that can change these outcomes in coming years.

Yes, there were too few blacks who got funding for their projects, compared to other minorities, but the application process does take steps to mask applicants' gender, race and ethnicity in the materials used to determine awards. Though it's unclear whether reviewer bias or a general weakness in the quality of those applications was the culprit, neither is acceptable.

This study was important -- there are few others on the racial and ethnic composition of similarly educated populations applying for federal research funding. It's wonderful that as a result of the findings, NIH will institute new steps in the grant-making process such as more research on disparities, increasing the diversity of the reviewers, looking for and changing biases in the review process, and improved support for grant candidates.

But more alarming than the relatively egalitarian awarding of grants is the lack of diversity of applicants. Hispanics, who represent 16 percent of the U.S. population, and blacks need help. Not in the form of having their research studies funded more often, but at the very roots -- in having access to excellent public education that will prepare them for careers in science, technology and math fields.

With that in place, and a community of cheerleaders encouraging them to reach for those lofty fields, a rise in the percentage of black and Hispanic NIH grant winners will eventually take care of itself.

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.