Ge Wang, adjunct professor of biomedical engineering at the Virginia Tech/Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences, and seven of his colleagues published a study refuting early claims that affirmative actions should be taken to protect against racial discrimination when grants are dispersed.
The discussions about research grants and race escalated when a 2011 issue of Science magazine reported “that Asians were four percentage points and black or African American applicants 13 percentage points ‘less likely to receive NIH investigator-initiated research funding compared to whites.’”
Using a U.S News and World Report ranking on the top 92 medical schools, Wang and his team reportedly compiled data on black and white faculty members in departments of internal medicine, surgery, and basic sciences from a subset of 31 schools. The researchers found 130 black faculty members, and then randomly selected 40 of them for comparison. They paired the 40 black faculty with 80 white faculty peers including the same gender, degree, title, specialty, and university.
Wang’s team found that “total grant amounts and the number of funded projects were racial-group-wise normalized” based on the individual scientific publication measures, “the NIH review process does not appear biased against black faculty members,” according to the study. Wang, then, concludes that “When the totals and numbers were normalized by the productivity measure in terms of the journals’ reputations index, the ratios between black and white faculty members neared parity.”
Currently grants to outside researchers account for about 83 percent of the National Institute’s of Health $30-billion annual budget. As such, this government trough creates an interesting competition matrix for faculty members in the sciences and engineering—who depend on grants to fund their research and laboratories. Wang’s research makes the case that the world of science, because it tends to judge quality on the basis of merit, racial bias is less likely to be a phenomenon.
The larger question, of course, is whether or not the NIH should be the primary funding source for university research laboratories in the first place. Nevertheless, we should not be too surprised at the results of Wang’s study. Wang’s study challenges the prevailing assumption that disparities on outcome always result from discrimination. One can only wonder what additional types of bias are introduced in a system where government officials decide which researchers and which universities receive funding.
Although race bias may not be an issue with NIH grants, one can only wonder about whether or not certain universities in particular states, with particular members of Congress serving on Health and Human Services related committees, are favored more than others. A political favoritism study would be very telling but it is doubtful that government officials would fund it so we may never know the truth.