Ending racial disparities in NIH funding

The events of the past year have been a wake-up call for some of us: We have had to starkly acknowledge the systemic racism that shapes our nation and institutions. Science is not immune to this systemic racism. This is the time to listen to Black and other historically marginalized colleagues and trainees (e.g Dzirasa, 2020a). They remind us that overt racism, aversive racism, microaggressions and the long history of systemic racism have shaped the current scientific environment, in our own fields, departments and universities.

For many cell biologists, NIH provides the primary source of funds that power our research. 2021 marks 10 years since the landmark study by Ginther et al. (2011) first laid out the extent to which systemic racism affects NIH grant funding mechanisms (Ginther et al., 2011). From 2000–2006 Black principal investigators (PIs) were 55% as likely to receive an award as white PIs of similar academic achievement. Additional analysis led by Ginther in 2016 showed that “differences in funding by race/ethnicity were more prominent than those by gender” for Black and Asian women (Ginther et al., 2016). Over the past decade multiple studies have emerged, some from NIH itself, to explore the underlying reasons for these disparities, including recent work from Mike Lauer, Director of Extramural Research (Lauer et al., 2021 BioRxiv).

Two systemic issues in NIH funding combine to create some of this disparity. First, while Black investigators are found in all areas of science, they are disproportionately represented in certain fields, and these fields are funded by NIH Institutes with some of the lowest levels of support (Lauer et al., 2021 BioRxiv). This “topic choice” explains over 20% of the funding disparity (Hoppe, 2019). Second, in many institutes, Program Officers (POs) have some discretion to choose which applications in the “grey area” to fund. This grey area represents those grants scored above the institute pay line, but with a good enough score to merit additional consideration by the PO.. ~119 applications from white PIs with scores in the 35th–59th percentile range were funded versus zero applications from Black PIs with scores in the same range (Drugmonkey, 2020a). Kafui Dzirasa has pointed out that the scale of the solutions is simple: “the R01 funding disparity for black scientists could be virtually eliminated if each of NIH’s 24 Institutes and Centers funded approximately 1 additional grant each year” (Dzirasa, 2020b). This adds up to just 24 additional grants, which would be a 0.3% increase from the number of R01-equivalent awards in FY2019.

Despite a decade of studying the racial disparities in NIH funding, it seems that no meaningful progress has been made. From 2014–2016, Black applicants’ award rates remained only 55% of those for white PIs (Erosheva et al., 2020).  NIH has created new programs to bring a more diverse group of postdocs into faculty positions, including the NIH Common Fund FIRST program and the new NIGMS MOSAIC Program, of which ASCB is a part. However, without deliberate efforts to mitigate these disparities in NIH research grant funding, what mechanisms will ensure that these new PIs will experience the success that they rightfully deserve?

We are entering a new era in which we once again have a federal administration that has pledged to create policy-driven by science and available data. The naming of Eric Lander as Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the elevation of OSTP Director to the Cabinet, and the inclusion of Alondra Nelson as Deputy Director, are important signals that all of science, including social science, will inform policy. Furthermore, the naming of Dr. Frances Arnold, the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, and Dr. Maria Zuber, a geophysicist who was the first woman to lead a NASA planetary mission, to lead the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the announcement that Dr. Collins will remain as NIH Director and the choice of Dr. Fauci to be a chief science advisor with a new head of the CDC are all significant and timely decisions, demonstrating that diversity in leadership brings strength and vision. When combined with the strong bipartisan support in Congress for increasing the diversity of the scientific workforce and President Biden’s recent Executive Order On Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government, this change in leadership should empower NIH leaders to take immediate and substantive action to address these disparities in NIH funding.  The NIH Advisory Committee to the Director will hold a special meeting on Feb. 26 to address these issues, and we hope concrete actions are announced.

Scientific societies and individual scientists also have roles to play in this important and necessary shift. ASCB has been a leader for decades in championing diversity and equity across many axes, and has an active Public Policy Committee that works to shape scientific policy. As individual scientists, we also each have power. We are grant reviewers, colleagues of Black faculty, members of departments involved in hiring and promotion decisions and individuals that can play an active role to shape the institutions where we work and those that fund our science. What are we doing each day to make the scientific enterprise more equitable, and ensure that we create a future where science truly reflects the diversity of the world?

With a decade of studies, focus groups and listening sessions behind us, some of our Black colleagues have understandably reached the end of their patience and are demanding immediate action. Two important and powerful pieces appeared in the last month, in eLife (“Racial inequity in grant funding from the US National Institutes of Health” [https://elifesciences.org/articles/65697] (Taffe and Gilpin, 2021) and in Cell (“Fund Black Scientists” [https://www.cell.com/cell/fulltext/S0092-8674(21)00011-8] (Stevens et al., 2021)).  Both offer clear critiques of the current situation and bold recommendations for how to correct it. We include a detailed summary of some of these recommendations below—note that they are the recommendations of the authors, not the ASCB, but we think they are worth careful consideration. In addition, we encourage scientists at all levels of the scientific enterprise to consider how these strategies might be incorporated into their professional decision-making.

It is no longer time for discussion or investigation of racial disparities, it is simply time to take bold action.

Suggestions from:  Fund Black scientists, Cell 184, pp 561-565.


  1. Program officers/program directors (POs/PDs) should be encouraged and empowered to reevaluate grants of Black PIs that with initial scores above the funding pay-line and bring these grants forward to council for funding. We calculate that an average of only 2 additional R01 applications from Black PIs per institute would need to be funded to achieve racial equity.


  1. More Black PIs should be included on study sections. NIH should institute a minimum number of Black reviewers on each panel and publish a timeline over which this number will represent the US population


  1. Until there is no NIH racial funding disparity, all applications from Black PIs must be discussed. These applications should be automatically slated for discussion, prior to the review meeting by an automated system or the scientific review officer (SRO).


  1. Diversity of the investigator team should be a score-driving criterion in NIH grant review. This includes race/ethnicity and other forms of diversity such as gender, sexual orientation, and disability.


  1. Ensure that the scientific workforce, including NIH leadership, SROs and POs/PDs, study section chairs, NIH grant reviewers, and NIH grant recipients are trained and empowered to identify, respond to, and stop racism on review panels and elsewhere.


  1. Create efficient mechanisms for reporting racist or biased conduct during and after review panels. This includes developing a standardized policy to remove reviewers with a history of offenses from the reviewer pool and publicizing policies, offenses reported, and NIH follow-up actions in annual reports.


  1. Include an NIH ‘‘ambassador’’ trained in racism on all review panels. The ambassador would ensure compliance and consistency of ‘‘best practices’’ across study sections (e.g., fairly drawn discussion lines, equitable grant discussion ratios based on diversity metrics such as race/ethnicity and gender prior to panels, inclusion of Black faculty on panels). The ambassador would observe dialogs and intervene and mediate when racism or bias occurs. Reviewers should be enabled to communicate with the ambassador during and after each panel. Issues raised by ambassadors must be acted upon in the panel and later by NIH as above.


  1. Include a module on recognizing racism and stopping its negative impact in the mandatory Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) training.


Suggestions from:  Equity, Diversity and Inclusion: Racial inequity in grant funding from the US National Institutes of Health.  eLife 2021;10:e65697



  1. The need for increased data Transparency. Publish relevant review statistics that pertain to race and ethnicity on a regular basis. Data for success rates for R01 grants across the NIH should be reported for each Institute and Center, and also for other grant mechanisms. CSR should publish race and ethnicity data for each standing study section on at least an annual basis. This should be accompanied by statistics on reviewer gender, geographic location, career stage and funding status. The CSR should also publish success rates for applications and applicants to each study section disaggregated by race and ethnicity. Finally, the CSR should analyze and report the racial composition of special emphasis panels.
  2. Using paylines to reduce disparities. “Exception pay” decisions can have a significant impact on which applications are funded and which are not. For the sample of applications studied by Hoppe et al., one of the authors (MAT) estimated that approximately 119 applications with white PIs in the 35th–59th percentile range were funded, whereas zero applications from African-American/Black PIs with scores in this range were funded. It is important to note that only ~1.5% of total applications are submitted by Black PIs: the fact that this percentage is so small is a major problem. However, it also makes the disparity relatively easy to address by reversing or equalizing disparities in discretionary funding decisions. If unsuccessful applications with Black PIs ranked in the ~15th–35th percentile range were funded instead of applications with white PIs that were funded despite being ranked outside the top 35% of applications, racial disparities would be reduced and the average standard of funded applications (as assessed by peer reviewers) would improve! If this is done, the success rate for African-American/ Black PIs will increase significantly, while the success rate for white PIs will be reduced by an imperceptible amount.
  1. Use a top-down approach previously used to help early-stage investigators. In 2007, for example, policies were put in place to enhance the funding of applications with Early Stage Investigator (ESI) PIs, including exhortation of reviewers to be lenient and a relaxed payline that applied only to these applications. The justification and implementation of ESI initiatives and programs suggest that there are no credible reason why similar types of programs could not be implemented with respect to African-American/Black PIs and other subgroups of underrepresented and disenfranchised PIs. Furthermore, there is no reason why this could not be done immediately.


Dzirasa, K. 2020a. For Black Scientists, the Sorrow Is Also Personal. Cell. 182:263-264.

Dzirasa, K. 2020b. Revising the a Priori Hypothesis: Systemic Racism Has Penetrated Scientific Funding. Cell. 183:576-579.

Erosheva, E.A., S. Grant, M.C. Chen, M.D. Lindner, R.K. Nakamura, and C.J. Lee. 2020. NIH peer review: Criterion scores completely account for racial disparities in overall impact scores. Sci Adv. 6:eaaz4868.

Ginther, D.K., S. Kahn, and W.T. Schaffer. 2016. Gender, Race/Ethnicity, and National Institutes of Health R01 Research Awards: Is There Evidence of a Double Bind for Women of Color? Acad Med. 91:1098-1107.

Ginther, D.K., W.T. Schaffer, J. Schnell, B. Masimore, F. Liu, L.L. Haak, and R. Kington. 2011. Race, ethnicity, and NIH research awards. Science. 333:1015-1019.

Hoppe, T. A., A. Litovitz, K.A. Willis, R.A. Meseroll, M.J. Perkins, B.I. Hutchins, A.F. Davis, M.S. Lauer, H.A. Valantine, J.M. Anderson, and G.M. Santangelo. 2019. Topic choice contributes to the lower rate of NIH awards to African-American/black scientists. Sci Adv5(10).

Stevens, K.R., K.S. Masters, P.I. Imoukhuede, K.A. Haynes, L.A. Setton, E. Cosgriff-Hernandez, M.A. Lediju Bell, P. Rangamani, S.E. Sakiyama-Elbert, S.D. Finley, R.K. Willits, A.N. Koppes, N.C. Chesler, K.L. Christman, J.B. Allen, J.Y. Wong, H. El-Samad, T.A. Desai, and O. Eniola-Adefeso. 2021. Fund Black scientists. Cell. 184:561-565.

Taffe, M.A., and N.W. Gilpin. 2021. Racial inequity in grant funding from the US National Institutes of Health. eLife. 10.

About the Author:

Find out about the members and activities of the Public Policy Committee here https://www.ascb.org/committee/public-policy-advocacy/