Here, Zoë Corbyn reports for Nature (18 August 2011), “Black applicants less likely to win NIH grants”:
Even after correcting for applicants’ educational background, nationality, training, previous research awards, publication record and institution, the gap remained at 10 percentage points, meaning that when these factors are accounted for black scientists are two-thirds as likely to win funding as white ones.
Prompting a review, of course.
“The gap for black applicants is extremely large, and very troubling in that it defies explanation,” says study leader Donna Ginther, an economist at the University of Kansas.
Perhaps it doesn’t defy explanation so much as it is difficult to directly study. One clue:
Black researchers, Ginther notes, are significantly less likely to resubmit an unfunded application than their white colleagues, perhaps indicating a lack of mentoring.
Doubtless, the researchers are on to something. Social signals are potent, and among the most potent are “Who You Know” and “Who You Owe.” Trouble is, these signals tend to travel exclusive channels. Subtle checklists lurk at every turn.
That is, we all “know” that the applicant from Topp U who also studied under Dr. Doofus and gets funding to network with heavyweights at five-star conferences will somehow get funded. For one thing, it might be a scandal if he didn’t. After all, many people have invested a small part of their own reputations in his success. And his success will in some part enhance theirs.
The African American from Okay U may be just as good a scientist, but he gets conference funding to network with … high school students at the “Is science for you?” lunch. The rest follows.
The trouble is, quantitative research methods often do not identify key signals like “Do we need him to succeed?” Insightful qualitative analysis is the next step.
Veteran grantsman DrugMonkey offers some useful thoughts here.
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