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NIH on mission to find and fund black science

Jimmie Briggs

In many ways, Raynard Kington sees himself as incredibly privileged.

After attaining his undergraduate and medical degrees from the University of Michigan, he later completed his MBA at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and served in various capacities at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), including deputy director.

Board-certified in internal medicine, public health and preventive medicine, Kington has been president of Grinnell College in Iowa since 2010.

As a prominent African American medical professional and scientist, he recognizes the challenges that can exist for researchers of color in the biomedical community, a reality borne out by the findings of a heavily scrutinized study he co-authored in Science magazine in the fall of 2011.

More than a year later, that study, which showed that black scientists were less likely to be awarded research monies from the NIH than their white counterparts, has inspired the agency to launch a comprehensive effort to bolster grants made to researchers of color, and increase their overall presence in the scientific community.

These are goals Kington and others see as critical to achieving necessary breakthroughs for all communities.

“I made good choices and the people around me helped me make good choices,” Kington explained in an interview. “I was able to achieve my goals. It wasn’t without challenges to race, but each person has their own journey.”

Commissioned by NIH, the Science study was published in August, 2011. Approximately 83,000 grant applications to the institution were reviewed for the period between 2000 and 2006. The figures were stark for black researchers: For every 100 applications made by a white applicant, 29 received awards; while for every 100 queries made by black scientists, only 16 were funded.

A black scientist was one-third less likely than a white counterpart to get a research project financed, the study found. The disparity for Latinos, Asians, Native Americans and women were not as great.

The process of seeking a research grant from NIH, which is arguably the primary and most prestigious source of financial support for an independent researcher, other than private institutions, is two-fold. A prospective application goes before a committee possibly comprised of up to 40 researchers from outside the agency. Each proposal gets a preliminary score before going to the full selection body for a final score, though only the top half of applications get a second score. The submissions aren’t anonymous but the race and ethnicity of researchers is not requested, either.

“There was a lot of attention related to the fact as to how applications are reviewed,” Kington noted. “My belief is that that is a relatively small part of the problem.”

He continued: “The issue is how they’re trained, and the peer network developed. The peers who help them take the best decisions … It’s not what sort of fellowships or schools scientists are coming from, but scientists of color are steered toward a differential outcome even when attending the best research institutions. It points to mentoring, and informal networks scientists have. Who’s available to read your applications before they’re submitted? Who’s available to give advice about career decisions? It’s the informal networks which are the more profound problem.”

Somewhere around 500 doctoral degrees are awarded annually to minorities in the biological sciences, and within the medical education environment specifically, approximately 3 percent of full-time medical school faculty members are black, even though African Americans are more than 13 percent of the general population.

Lawrence Tabak, the principal deputy director of the NIH, embraces the findings of the Science study and is optimistic for long-term solutions.

“In our current finding climate, many investigators fail to secure grants,” Tabak said. “The real challenge we faced, was given the evidence, how do we address this? The group who authored the paper, pointed to a cumulative benefit that majority investigators enjoy, which unfortunately many minority investigators do not. It’s the type of papers you publish, where you publish and where you go to school.

“Our intervention is at the college level, where we hope to entice young people of color, people who must get one-on-one intensive mentorship,” Tabak explained. “This is important in any walk of life, but it’s particularly important in science when you’re trying to advance. There’s a need to get more people in the pipeline and maintain them. We’ve laid out a decade-long plan, encompassing many elements.”

NIH assembled a task force following the publication of the Science study and, among other recommendations it is looking to implement, will examine the review process for grant applications. It will also seek out young researchers from underserved populations to be application reviewers.

Tabak outlined a decade-long effort in response to the findings of racial disparity in research grant awards by his agency. He looks to recruit 600 minority students within that time through post-doctoral fellowships, and intervene at the undergraduate level to keep young people and students of color in the sciences.

Many tend to drop out of it in their sophomore year and the new NIH initiative will include scholarships, loan repayment, faculty mentorship and enticement into Ph.D. programs.

“They’ve come forth with a set of programs which I think are a good start,” Kington said. “But, we have to be realistic. There will be no magic bullet. We’ve done the easy stuff and it hasn’t worked. The communities that study disparities in health [are] very diverse, not just scientists of color. Any time we have a group of people who have the potential to become great scientists, and there’s a risk of not carrying those great minds forward, then the entire country needs to address it.”

New America Media