Playing Fair? Minority Research Institutions Call for NIH to Address Funding Disparities

Article excerpt

When Ph.D. science and health researchers are seeking financial support, for their health science studies, more often than not they apply to the federal governments National Institutes of Health (NIH) for an RO1 research grant, which boosts a project's standing in the research community as well as the career of the applicant.

In fiscal year 2011, the NIH, an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, awarded more than $11 billion in federal tax dollars to researchers at institutions across the country to study health issues in the nation. More than $3 billion went to 10 medical schools, led by Johns Hopkins University with $450.7 million.

Researchers of color, particularly those at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other minority-serving institutions, are less likely than their non-minority counterparts to share in the NIH RO1 largess. Most of their proposals for NIH funds to help study various health issues are rejected early in the application process, a 2011 NIH study found, confirming years of empirical reports about funding disparities. That helps explain why HBCUs and other historically minority research institutions share such a small portion of NIH money, led by Meharry Medical College with $24.1 million.

The NIH study, focusing on applications filed from federal fiscal year 1999 to 2009, found 73 percent of applications from Black applicants were determined by NIH peer review committees to not be of sufficient scientific merit to be "fully discussed." The determinations effectively disqualified the application from further consideration for NIH funding.

A similar study published this fall in Academic Medicine and focusing on NIH applications filed from 2000 to 2006 by medical doctors of color found a similar pattern, although the disparity was narrower.

NIH funding is considered an endorsement that can be used to attract other funding and the gold card for career promotion in many medical science health research fields. Thus, the rejections may have hampered efforts to get funding from other public and private sources, stunted the careers of some up-and-coming academicians and sidetracked bids by some Black researchers to expand and influence the nation's understanding of health care needs and exposure to new ideas for addressing them, say knowledgeable veterans in the field of health and medical research.

"One can say a lot of good research that could bring unique perspectives and supporting faculty with different concepts about approaching problems got shelved," says Dr. Keith C. Norris, executive vice president for research and health affairs at the Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science. "A lot of proposals that maybe were not part of the usual group, those may have been shelved," says Norris. He has been with Charles Drew, based in Los Angeles, for more than 20 years. During his career, Norris has secured more than $150 million in research grants from the NIH.

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The impact of being denied an NIH grant "is actually enormous," adds Dr. Fatima Lima, M.D. and Dean of the School of Graduate Studies and Research at Nashville's Meharry Medical College, where the Ph.D. program is 100 percent African-American. Without NIH funding, applicants are unable to buy supplies and equipment and train, she says. Often, they cannot get promotions, tenure or pay raises.

As important, Lima says, failure to accept research proposals from applicants of color often means health issues of import to poorer communities and people of color don't get full airing. "I go to the NIH a lot," Lima says. "I know when I'm in the room it changes the conversation," she says, citing the importance of having voices "at the table" representing the interests and issues of Blacks and other minorities.

Spreading the wealth

Even before the NIH Ph.D. study, leaders in the HBCU community had begun to speak more about the need for the NIH to address the funding disparities. …