Gate Keeping in the Halls of Science: The Continuing Significance of Race (Part 1)

Question: Does the skin color or name of a scientist who may be the discoverer of a cure for breast cancer, diabetes, or sickle cell matter when it comes to being awarded a monetary grant from US funding agencies who on average receive billions of taxpayers dollars each and every year? (NIH = $31.2 billion and NSF=$6.8 billion)

The answer to the question is yes for both skin color and one’s name. And, although the story being discussed here does not go in this direction I am going to say, based on solid evidence presented elsewhere that the same pertains to women scientists who apply for these public funds. (See also here)

In the carefully worded press release accompanying the results of the new study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and published in the August 19th issue of Science we learn that:

Though information on race and ethnicity of the applicant is not available to reviewers, an applicant’s name or institutional affiliation included in the application biography can be suggestive of their race or ethnicity.

I was not totally surprised to learn last week that Blacks and others are not treated equally by the agencies that fund scientific research. Any scholar who has applied for a federal grant knows this. Any scholar who has sat on a grant panel knows this; applicants with some qualities receive preferential treatment whereas others face discrimination.

In a review of some 80,000 grant application across a seven year period grant applications submitted to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a US public funding agency—who we recently learned has been giving research money to Chinese scientists in China—the research scholars found that the funding agency was biased against African Americans who submitted grant applications. Asian and Hispanic applicants also faced discrimination but not to the same degree as the biases against Blacks. And, although the NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins notes that “the situation is not acceptable” and that “the data is troubling” he offers no viable solution for ending this long-standing problem.

I would imagine that Collins, a well-paid public servant whose career is “inside the beltway,” knows the fate of another director of a government agency, namely the Bureau of Justice Statistics ex-Director Lawrence Greenfeld. Greenfeld, appointed to the Bureau of Justice Statistics by George Bush after the 2000 presidential elections, was fired when he would not bury a factually accurate and devastating report on “racial profiling.” Perhaps Collins feared the same if he were to publicly acknowledge what he must have known was true all along, that there were discriminatory patterns in funding with regards to race, ethnicity and gender?

What does all this mean? For years scholars from various academic disciplines have been conducting empirical studies showing the extent of racial discrimination, including research by Professor Joe Feagin who has been warning us that systematic racism persists in the USA. In book after book and essay after essay he notes that these current forms of racial discrimination are not just individual v. individual hostilities but more so institutional racism. In one paper published in the sociology journal American Sociological Review (Vol. 56, No. 1., Feb. 1991: pp. 101-116), Feagin points to a very common form of public discrimination against African Americans today: poor service at restaurants. He illustrates with a story: the couple waited and waited and waited and even though the restaurant was near empty they still waited to be seated. There were no back doors to be entered, no signs (“No Negroes”), no outdoor water hose to get a drink of water from and no take-out only service. Simply, in modern terms, no service at all! As this example applies to the recent paper in Science, we see that trained scientists serving in public service to tax-funded granting agencies take it upon themselves to bar African Americans professionals who are seeking funding for their research projects.

What could further demonstrate the “Continuing Significance of Race” in American society today? Race matters, and no amount of hollow apologies by the administrators at NIH will change this as they, too, must have known that without filling the science and technology pipelines there will be no progress on any level or in any corner of academe. In short, discrimination in funding leads to gaps in PhD completion, hiring into tenure track lines, and ultimately to promotion.

The former head of the National Science Foundation and President of Occidental College, Dr. John Slaughter put it differently –understanding the vital importance of the “pipeline”–but it points to the problem back then and it’s importance today: “if you want Black faculty, you need Black students.” The point being that the pipeline has to begin with the quality education of all students and continue through secondary school up through advanced studies. It is no wonder that in the Science article the authors point to the probable differences in training, mentoring, access to pre-doctoral research projects, etc., as one possible explanation for differences in grant awards by race. Yet they make it clear that this is not the only cause and that racial identification coding is rampant in NIH review panels.

What this means is that the results of the study Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Awards demonstrate the following: differential access, bias, gate keeping in science, and racism all remain a problem in the arena of scientific discovery and will not change until the administrators of the agencies want to make significant changes; until there is pressure to define discrimination as costly and transformation as being in the individual and more importantly institutional self-interests of the administrators and agencies.

In terms of consequences and outcomes, first off let me note that this underscores the weakness in the sacredness of the double blind review process in science, letting us know that the “Matthew Effect”—coined by Merton and Zuckerman– in science is alive and well. (See Merton, Robert K. (1968). “The Matthew Effect in Science” (pdf), Science 159 (3810), 56–63; and Merton, Robert K. (1988). “The Matthew Effect in Science, II: Cumulative advantage and the symbolism of intellectual property” (pdf), ISIS 79, 606–623.

Earl Smith, PhD
Professor of American Ethnic Studies and Sociology
Wake Forest University