When a 2011 article in Science uncovered that black scientists are more likely to be rejected for medical research grants, it created a buzz in the research community.
A year later, the National Institutes of Health — the largest source of funding for medical research in the world — announced that it was considering making the applications anonymous.
Yet, a Virginia Tech adjunct professor, Dr. Ge Wang, and his colleagues say this change is not necessary, and that in their calculations released Thursday in Journal of Informatics, there is not actually a racial bias.
“We believe that this study has importance,” says Wang. “The racial bias issue is very sensitive and yet complicated. Our analysis suggests that racial bias does not exist, as explained in our latest paper.”
Wang and his team gathered data from September 2011 on black and white faculty members from 31 of the top American medical schools. They compared a randomly selected group of 40 black faculty members to 80 white faculty peers with the same degree, title, specialty, school and gender.
“He’s finding some interesting things,” says Dr. Donna K. Ginther, author of the Science article and professor of economics and director of the Center for Science, Technology and Economic Policy at the University of Kansas. “But the two studies are not that similar.”
Ginther also points out the limitations of Wang’s study. “We used 83,000 applications and he had information on [only] 40 researchers,” she says.
However, Wang says that their findings are statistically accurate, regardless of the number studied.
Wang and his team also compared the scientific productivity of black and white faculty members after they were granted funding and found that the ratio was the same. They found a correlation between the amount of funding black and white researchers received and how many articles they ultimately published about their research.
For example, if a researcher received half the amount of funding as another researcher, it would be considered fair if the one with more funding published more work, says Wang, who is also newly a chaired professor of engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
But, it’s not apples to apples, Ginther says, because her report was about the fact that black researchers were less likely to get the funds to begin with — not about the fairness in the amounts funded or the number of publications.
To address this ongoing issue, both the NIH and Ginther are performing further research on racial bias in the process by which research is judged for funding and publication in medical journals, called the “peer review” process.
“Funding is built on the peer review process and scientific achievement is built on it,” Ginther says. “So, understanding the dynamics and whether or not there is bias in the process is important. It is critically important to every aspect of science.”
Dr. Tyeese Gaines is a physician-journalist with over 10 years of print and broadcast experience, now serving as health editor for theGrio.com. Dr. Ty is also a practicing emergency medicine physician in New Jersey. Follow her on twitter at @doctorty or on Facebook.