"Now we know, and now we have a chance to do something about it. The leadership here is absolutely committed to making that happen"
-Francis Collins (NIH Director)
Remember that NIH race thing?
No? I quick reminder, in the summer of 2011 a paper published in Science reported that NIH grants showed a racial disparity. When controlling for a host of factors, African-American scientists still tended to have less of a chance to be awarded a grant from NIH. There was a minor storm of commentary and coverage, including Science and the New York Times. NIH officials stated that, 1) the disparity was a big concern and 2) they were going to do something about it (NIH reactions here and here). Initially that something was, of course, to form a committee. Not exactly a dramatic action, but I suppose understandable given the giant bureaucraticness of NIH. There needed to be a report written and recommendations made. That was well over a year ago and what have the results been? (a reaction here).
Basically four things have been recommended,
1) Increase undergraduate research opportunities
2) Create a mentoring network
3) Hire a Chief Diversity Officer
4) Test some possible bias interventions, e.g., "diversity training".
Even if these recommendations were enacted tomorrow, and worked exactly as hoped, the gains would be slow and marginal. #1 seem to more address the problem of under representation. The report is not about under representation it is about an outcome disparity. #2 I'm not sure how this will work. Is this network going to be the Facebook of science mentoring? Pick-a-Mentor? Mentoring is great but it's not as simple as being assigned a mentor who then provides you with all knowledge needed for professional development. In my own experience it is a constant active slog to find people and pick their brains. #3 Seems good enough. Of course this person will have to take actions and have the power to take actions other than issue more reports. #4 The standard diversity training response. How well this will work may depend on the source(s) of the disparity.
I want to contrast this with NIH actions regarding other issues. In that same blog post I linked there is also discussion of the ongoing early career investigator issues. Here is a selection of some of the actions directed towards that problem.
In the past NIH has also taken actions in modifying how grants are awarded. The whole Early Stage Investigator designation is part of that. Grant pickups, etc.
A commenter on the Rock Talk NIH blog put the contrast this way:
A grant outcome disparity for younger investigators leads to a massive and immediate initiative to fund proposals out of order.
A grant outcome disparity for African-Americans leads to….”initiatives” and “study”. In other words, nothing.
It's tough for me to disagree with this. I don't want to get all Kanye ("NIH doesn't care about black researchers"), but priorities, be they individual or institutional, really come though not in talk but actions. Now, I don't have any special knowledge about the source or solution to the racial disparity. But the NIH response here seems more along the lines of adequate than overwhelming.
If it is the case that NIH leadership believes the report flawed, or the effect due to something beyond their control, then they should say so. Thus far I have not seen any indication. The optimistic view of NIH's plans is that a multifaceted approach is more likely to show some effect. Another view is that NIH is throwing a few okay plans at the wall and seeing what sticks.
Two interesting notes:
- The NSF numbers don't seem to show nearly as much a disparity.
- Interesting wrinkle in the data: black scientists had less co-authors per paper.