A Minority Viewpoint

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Science  19 Aug 2011:
Vol. 333, Issue 6045, pp. 926
DOI: 10.1126/science.333.6045.926

Although a study published today in Science (p. 1015) raises the specter of potential racial bias in grant reviews at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (see main text), several black biomedical scientists who've served on NIH study sections say they've seen no direct evidence of this.

“I must say, race never comes up in discussion,” says Floyd Wormley Jr., a micro biologist at the University of Texas, San Antonio, who serves as a standing member on NIH's AIDS-associated Opportunistic Infections and Cancer study section. “In my experience, most of the time, you do not know the nationality, and oftentimes you don't know the gender, of the person writing the grant. Race is never an issue. … We only grade the science.”

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Read the extended companion article in Science Careers and join the discussion on ScienceLive.

When the community of scientists within a field is small enough, however, it's possible to tell who's who based on biographical information within the proposal, says Squire Booker, a molecular biochemist at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, who recently served on NIH's Macromolecular Structure and Function study section. “I know a lot of them,” he says, “and so I'll know which ones are minority scientists.” But Booker is quick to point out that that knowledge has never publicly factored in to any reviews in which he's participated.

Chester Brown, a pediatric geneticist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, who reviewed grants for an ad hoc study section on cellular aspects of diabetes and obesity, says that although race never came up in his section's review discussions, he can't rule out that knowing a grant applicant was a member of a minority group might unconsciously influence his decision—in a positive direction. A more likely explanation for the race gap, Brown suggests, is that young black scientists have a harder time finding mentors to whom they can relate; as a result, they may not receive as much training or guidance in grant writing. “There just aren't as many faculty that look like us,” Brown says.

The mentoring issue cuts both ways, Wormley notes. The time constraints imposed by serving on minority recruitment committees and mentoring students often leaves precious little time for minority scientists to do their own research. “As an underrepresented minority, you want to give back,” he says. “But as one minority scientist told me once, ‘You do no one, especially other minorities, any good if you don't get tenure.’” Make no mistake, he says: Receiving an R01 is essential to success in the biomedical field at a research university: “If you do not get an R01, you probably will not make tenure.”

  • * Michael Price is a writer with Science Careers.

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