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Racial discrimination in science: A black and white answer

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You might expect that science, particularly American science, would be colour-blind. Though fewer people from some of the country’s ethnic minorities are scientists than the proportions of those minorities in the population suggest should be the case, once someone has got bench space in a laboratory, he might reasonably expect to be treated on merit and nothing else.

Unfortunately, a study just published in Science by Donna Ginther of the University of Kansas suggests that is not true. Dr Ginther, who was working on behalf of America’s National Institutes of Health (NIH), looked at the pattern of research grants awarded by the NIH and found that race matters a lot. Moreover, it is not just a question of white supremacy. Asian and Hispanic scientists do just as well as white ones. Black scientists, however, do badly.

Dr Ginther and her colleagues analysed grants awarded by the NIH between 2000 and 2006, and correlated this information with the self-reported race of more than 40,000 applicants. Their results show that the chance of a black scientist receiving a grant was 17%. For Asians, Hispanics and whites the number was between 26% and 29%. Even when these figures were adjusted to take into account applicants’ prior education, awards, employment history and publications, a gap of ten percentage points remained.

This bias appears to arise in the NIH’s peer-review mechanism. Each application is reviewed by a panel of experts. These panels assign scores to about half the applications they receive (the others are rejected outright). Scored applications are then considered for grants by the various institutes that make up the NIH. The race of the applicant is not divulged to the panel. However, Dr Ginther found that applications from black scientists were less likely to be awarded a score than those from similarly qualified scientists of other races, and when they were awarded a score, that score was lower than the scores given to applicants of other races.
 
 

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