Disparities among black scientists: Do degrees matter?

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Regardless of achievement or education, black scientists are more likely to be rejected for medical research funding, according to a study out today in the journal Science.

As a black physician in a competitive, predominately white profession who — much like PhD candidates — required many years of training, I am disappointed and frustrated for my black scientist colleagues.

It is unfortunate that, despite graduate and doctorate degrees from top universities and impressive scientific achievement on par with other candidates, race remains a limiting factor.

Today’s study looked at grant applications submitted to the National Institutes of Health, the largest source of funding for medical research in the world.

No other ethnic group was found to have disparities in rejection rate.

According to the NIH, race and ethnicity are included as part of the grant application, but that information is not available to the reviewing committee.

However, the article goes on to mention the possibility of subconscious biases triggered by candidate names that imply certain ethnicities, or clues such as whether the applicant attended a historically black college or university.

Reading this felt eerily similar to reading the 2003 study where Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Chicago researchers took two candidates with the same credentials but put different names on the header.

Resumes were submitted in both Boston and Chicago, and recruiters were 50 percent more interested in Brendan, Gregg, Emily and Anne than Tamika, Aisha, Rasheed and Tyrone. Similar findings were published by the National Bureau of Economic Research that same year.

“One of the things that initially attracted me to careers in the sciences was that I believed science to be a meritocracy,” says Dr. Kevin Beck, an NIH fellow at the University of California, San Diego, who is white. “Those with the best work published the best papers, got the best jobs, and got the most funding.”

But, Beck adds: “After being in science for more than I decade, I no longer hold that viewpoint as strongly. While merit is important, science, like everything else, is a business and is political.”

My strongest concern is what this says to our budding black scientists further down the pipeline – black PhD students or undergrads on the road to either a PhD or the combined MD and PhD degree programs.Most PhD programs take three to six years after college to complete, and sometimes after a 2-year master’s degree. The combined MD and PhD programs, which allow its graduates to practice medicine as well as become research scientists, take anywhere from seven to ten years.

That is a significant sacrifice, regardless of race, for the message at the end of the road to be: you can have the same credentials, but it still may not matter.

In some ways, we are also at fault. The numbers of black scientists earning PhDs are lacking. National Science Foundation data showed that, in 2003, only 2 percent of doctorates earned in the science and engineering fields were by blacks, compared to being 13 percent of the U.S. population. This increased to 2.5 percent – or 824 black PhDs – in 2008.

The numbers of those applying for NIH grants are even less. Only 1.4 percent of NIH R01 grant proposals were submitted by black PhDs.

Yes, the conscious or subconscious injustices happening to black scientists is disappointing. However, if there are not enough black students earning PhDs, there will continue to be a disparity in the number of grant applications and acceptances. And, it is not just about the actual numbers. Having a greater presence within the field creates more opportunities to network, to mentor, and put real faces in front of these anonymous biases.

The remedy to this disparity is good mentorship, says Lamont Toliver, director of the Meyerhoff Scholarship Program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. This is what he reminded his students yesterday, after receiving concerned emails about the disconcerting NIH data.

“Across the board, I see [the lack of mentoring of black students] on the undergraduate level and the graduate level,” says Toliver. “It doesn’t surprise me when you get to the level of tenure and academics that there’s not enough.”

The Meyerhoff program attempts to fill this gap, focusing on diversity in science, technology, engineering and related fields. In addition to a full-tuition undergraduate scholarship at UMBC, students of all ethnicities are mentored and pushed immediately as freshman in preparation for doctorate-level degrees.

Over its 23 years, the Meyerhoff program has produced 74 black PhDs, 23 black MD/PhDs, and 69 black MDs. Over 300 are currently enrolled in doctorate programs.

Mentorship is the pivotal part of the Meyerhoff program. Without a mentor invested in your future, teaching you which exams to take and when, instructing how to appropriately apply for an NIH grant, or providing feedback along the way, the path will be much harder, Toliver says.

The NIH responded to today’s study and agreed that more research is needed to investigate the review process.

Beck, who was a Meyerhoff scholar from 1998 to 2002, is hopeful.

“While the results of the current study are disheartening, this study will likely have positive impacts on future PhDs and MD/PhDs,” he says.

“Some members of the scientific community are aware of the issues associated with racial and ethnic diversity, [but] others are likely completely unaware of the intrinsic biases in the system,” Beck adds. “Improvement is impossible without quantifiable outcomes.”

Toliver says the first step is for the NIH to ethnically diversify its review committees to increase the chances of fairness.

I agree with Toliver. It is my hope that the NIH will work to acknowledge that we all have biases, and diversify its committees such that no one bias weighs heavily on decisions.

In exchange, we have to work on our end and start pushing our students who are interested in science for even higher goals. It is not enough to earn the bachelor’s or the master’s or even the doctorate. They need mentors to help mold them into stellar scientists, while preparing them for the biases they may face.