A news bit in Nature overviews Richard Nakamura's plans to investigate the disparity in grant funding that was identified in the Ginther report in 2011. See here, here, here for blog comment on Gither et al. Nakamura is, of course, the current director (pdf) of the Center for Scientific Review, the entity at NIH that conducts the peer review of most grant applications that are submitted.
It is promising-ish. Nakamura's plans are summarized
One basic issue that the NIH will address is whether grant reviewers are thinking about an applicant’s race at all, even unconsciously. A team will strip names, racial identification and other identifying information from some proposals before reviewers see them, and look at what happens to grant scores.
Hope they check on the degree to which the blinding works, of course. As you know, Dear Reader, I am always concerned that blinding of academic works cannot always be assumed to have functionally worked to prevent the reviewer from identifying the author or lab group.
The NIH will also study reviewers’ work in finer detail, by analysing successful applications for R01 grants, the NIH’s largest funding programme for individual investigators. The goal is to see whether researchers can spot trends in the language used by reviewers to describe proposals put forward by applicants of different races. There is precedent for detectable differences: in a paper to be published in Academic Medicine, a team led by Molly Carnes, a physician at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, used automated text analysis to show that reviewers’ critiques of R01 grant applications by women tended to include more words denoting praise, as though the writer is surprised at the quality of the work.
Very intriguing contribution to the analysis. Nice.
The NIH will also analyse text in samples of reviewers’ unedited critiques. The Center for Scientific Review typically edits the wording and grammar of these reviews before grant proposals are returned to applicants, but even the subtlest details of such raw comments might hold clues about bias. Nakamura says that reviewers will not be told whether their comments will be analysed, because that in itself would bias the sample. “We want them to be sloppy,” he says.
Hmmm. I guess this is just human factors checking on the automated analysis. Together they are stronger.
The NIH’s Study Sections, in which review groups discuss the top 50% of grant applications, might also harbour bias: the 2011 Science paper found that submissions authored by African Americans are less likely to be discussed in the meetings. But when they are, a negative comment arising from even one person’s unconscious bias could have a major impact in such a group setting, says John Dovidio, a psychologist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and a member of the NIH’s Diversity Working Group. “That one person can poison the environment,” he says.
This is not presented in a context that suggests the NIH plans to investigate this directly. Not sure how this could be done without putting a severe finger on the balance. I mean sure, most meetings have call-in lines open to Program staff and Nakamura could just record and transcribe meetings but.....reviewers won't like it and if you warn them you scare off the fishies. So to speak.
Nakamura expects that the NIH’s effort to identify and root out prejudice, which he says could cost up to $5 million over three years, might prove controversial. “People resent the implication they might be biased,” he says — an idea borne out by some responses to his 29 May blogpost on the initiative. One commenter wrote, “It is absolutely insulting to be accused of review bigotry. Please tell me why I should continue to give up my time to perform peer review?”
But Nakamura believes that the NIH — and reviewers — need to keep open minds.
He, and media covering this, need to focus on the opportunity to communicate that institutional racism does not hinge on whether individual actors are overtly biased. The piece leads with the comment that Nakamura got his butt over to the Implicit Association website and identified his own biases to himself. This is the sort of introspection that needs to happen. Heck, I'd love to see a trial where study section reviewers were told to go over there and complete a few tests prior to receiving their grant assignments*.
The Nature editorial is, for the most part, on the side of goodness and light on this.
The idea that scientists who volunteer time and energy to review NIH grants could be biased against qualified minority researchers is a tough pill to swallow. The NIH is to be commended for not sweeping this possibility under the rug: it has turned to the scientific method to investigate the suggestion.
It is a topic that the NIH will need to broach delicately. Few academics consciously hold any such inclinations, and fewer still would deliberately allow them to affect their grant evaluations. Some are likely to bristle at what might be seen as an accusation of racism, and the NIH plans to conduct at least some of its studies of grant reviews without the reviewers’ knowledge or consent.
But better for the NIH to offend a few people than to make snap judgements and institute blunt policies to address the problem. Fixes such as increasing scholarships and training for minority groups would no doubt be a good thing, but they could be an unhelpful use of money if they do not address the root cause of the disparity.
yes, yes, excellent.....
And policies such as grant-allocation quotas could come at the expense of other researchers.
No. Bad Nature.
Right back to victim blaming. Right back to ignoring what it means to have a BIAS identified. Right back to ignoring what the nature of privilege means.
Those "other researchers" at present enjoy a disparate benefit at the expense of AfricanAmerican PIs. That's what Ginther means. Period. The onus shifted, upon identification of the disparity, to proving that non-AfricanAmerican PIs actually deserve their awards.
Ginther, btw, went a long ways toward rejecting some of the more obvious reasons why the disparity was not in fact an unfair bias. Read it, including the supplementary materials before you start commenting with stupid. Also, review this.
But there is also this. The low numbers of AfricanAmerican scientists submitting applications to the NIH for funding means that any possible hit to the success rate of non-AfricanAmerican PIs would be well nigh undetectable. A miniscule effect size relative to all other sources of variance in the funding process.
Another way to look at this issue is to take Berg's triage numbers from above. To move to 40% triage rate for the African-AmericanPI applications, we need to shift 20% (230 applications) into the discussed pile. This represents a whopping 0.4% of the White PI apps being shifted onto the triage pile to keep the numbers discussed the same.
These are entirely trivial numbers in terms of the "hit" to the chances of White PIs and yet you could easily equalize the success rate or award probability for African-American PIs.
It is even more astounding that this could be done by picking up African-American PI applications that scored better than the White PI applications that would go unfunded to make up the difference.
And of course "grant-allocation quotas" are precisely what the special paylines and other assists for ESI investigators consist of. Affirmative Action for the young and untried.
Did we get this sort of handwringing, call for long-duration "study" of the "true causes" of the disparity?
The NIH just started picking up ESI grants to balance the odds of funding, even when study sections responded to news of this affirmative action by further punishing ESI scores!
So yeah, my call is for the NIH to balance the funding rates first, and then do all their fancy studies to root out the "real cause" later.
Also for editorial teams like the one at Nature to stop repeating this whinging about those who already enjoy disparate privilege who might lose (some of) it.
*yeah, it might backfire. that would itself be interesting.