NIH launches grant program aimed at closing the funding rate gap between Black and white investigators

After having one idea batted down last year, some National Institutes of Health (NIH) institutes are taking a new tack to bolster the success rate of Black scientists and researchers from other underrepresented groups seeking research grants. A program aiming to diversify the NIH workforce could award up to $20 million a year to neuroscience, drug abuse, and mental health investigators from minority groups.

The program will create a new class of NIH’s standard R01 research grant designed to “encourage a more diverse pool of PIs [principal investigators],” said Walter Koroshetz, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), at a recent meeting. NINDS is launching the program, aimed at new PIs and those whose labs are at risk of folding, together with the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). In 2021, the three institutes partnered on a policy with similar aims that NIH later pulled because of concerns it would violate federal antidiscrimination laws.

Onlookers are hoping the new program will help close a long-standing gap between NIH funding success rates for Black scientists compared with white scientists, at least in the areas of research supported by the three institutes. “I’m very pleased,” says Kafui Dzirasa, a Duke University neurobiologist and psychiatrist who has urged NIH to take direct action to address the gap . The program “really has the potential to move the needle.”

The special R01s come as NIH has released data suggesting progress in narrowing the funding disparity in the past 2 years. In the 2021 fiscal year, a Black applicant’s odds of receiving at least one new R01 was 24.4%, or 2.2 percentage points lower than for a white applicant–compared with a gap of about seven to nine points from 2013 to 2019 ( see graph ). (The gap in success rates for all R01-equivalent applications, which had been about nine percentage points in 2013, has shrunk to five points.) “We are encouraged,” says Marie Bernard, NIH chief officer for scientific workforce diversity, who co-authored a 14 June blog post on the new data with NIH extramural chief Michael Lauer.

The lower R01 success rate for Black scientists shocked the research community when it was identified by a 2011 study led by economist Donna Ginther . Despite an array of new NIH programs to attract minorities to research and improve training and mentoring, as well as more awards to Black PIs, the “Ginther gap” has remained, leading many to blame racial bias.

Some observers, including Dzirasa, have argued that NIH’s 27 institutes and centers should close the gap by using their latitude to fund applications that score well in peer review but fall just outside the funding cutoff; the proposal could be in a high-priority research area or could bring a diverse perspective. NIH could eliminate the gap, some argue, if each institute annually awarded just two more grants to Black scientists, at a cost of $32 million a year .

Last year, NINDS, NIDA, and NIMH released a policy to help make that happen. It would have allowed investigators from underrepresented groups—which includes Black[ck] and Hispanic scientists, people with disabilities, and those from impoverished backgrounds—to check a box that would flag their application for program officers.

Last fall, however, NIH rescinded the notice because of “legal” concerns that linking demographic data to proposals “may have led to an impression that … applications supporting scientists from underrepresented groups would be automatically prioritized for funding,” the agency wrote . Officials emphasize that NIH cannot make funding decisions on the basis of race, gender, or ethnicity.

NIH funding disparities for new R01 grants

Ratio of applicants with at least one funded proposal to total applicants. (Race or ethnicity is self-identified.)

Graphic showing NIH funding disparities for new R01 grants
(Graphic) C. Bickel/ Science ; (Data) NIH Office of Extramural Research

The new program, announced on 9 June , passes legal muster because it aims to enhance diversity “in a very broad sense,” Lauer says. An NIH spokesperson notes that although the program “encourages” applications from researchers in underrepresented groups, “it is not exclusive—all new investigators and at-risk investigators are eligible to apply.” (NIH defines “at-risk” as a PI who will have no NIH grants if their high-quality proposal isn’t funded.) NIH officials also note that the program is part of the agency’s effort to comply with a mandate from Congress to do more to support early-stage investigators seeking their first NIH grants.

All proposals to the new program will be reviewed with other R01s by standard study sections, but will then compete for a special pot of funding: up to $5 million per year for 12 to 15 grants each at NIDA and NIMH, and up to $10 million for 25 grants at NINDS.

Dzirasa sees the program as accomplishing the same goal as last year’s NINDS policy: allowing program officers to fund grants from Black and other minorities that just missed the funding cutoff for the regular grant pool. “This gives them room to correct bias that they know is in their system,” he says.

Some researchers have concerns about the approach. One worry, says drug abuse researcher Michael Taffe of the University of California, San Diego, is that top-notch applications from Black PIs that NIH would have funded anyway will be shunted into the special program, potentially making room for the agency to fund weaker proposals from white PIs, he says. “That’s less good than fixing the bias in the first place so that all open competitions are actually open and fair,” Taffe says.

And Dzirasa says the program would be more effective if it were in place across NIH. “NIH as a whole should be making a commitment,” he says.

As for the recent rise in funding rates for Black scientists, Taffe thinks the most obvious explanation is that institutes are funding more grants from Black scientists who just missed the payline. Lauer, however, notes that “any analysis of that sort is going to be very difficult,” in part because not all institutes use strict paylines. Lauer also notes that there are so few Black PIs overall—about 300 in 2021—that even minor changes in grantmaking can have a big statistical impact.

Regardless of the numbers, “we’re not taking a victory lap” when it comes to improving the diversity of NIH grantees, Bernard says. “We have a lot more work yet to do.”