Cell Article Calls to End U.S. Funding Discrimination Against Black Scientists

UW Medicine | January 26, 2021

Network of biomedical engineering academics from across the nation focus on removing this barrier to success

A contributing piece this week in the scientific journal Cell, under the title “Fund Black Scientists,” calls upon the National Institutes of Health and other funding agencies to address disparities in allocating support for Black researchers.  Representatives from a national network consisting of 260+ women faculty in biomedical engineering from all academic ranks, including chairs, deans, and distinguished scientists made the call to action. Stacey Finley, Gordon S. Marshall Early Career Chair and Director of the Center for Computational Modeling of Cancer in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at USC is one of the notable scholars who contributed.

The Cell piece examines racial inequities that prevent Black faculty from equitably contributing to science and achieving their full potential. Inequitable federal funding for research by Black scientists is identified as a key issue. Several studies conducted over the past decade on the research funding from the National Institutes of Health to Black scientists find that Black applicant award rates have remained at about 55 percent of that of non-Black investigators with similar academic achievement.

The authors, all women scholars from leading universities around the country, write that while efforts have been made to improve the pipeline to encourage Black students to prepare for, and enter careers as academic researchers and faculty, lack of subsequent equitable research funding derail many careers.  With research funding an important criterion for academic promotion and tenure, NIH funding disparity can adversely affect the careers of Black scientists, several of whom can become discouraged and leave the profession.

Such consequences can be significant in multiple ways, the authors suggest. One is that fewer Black scientists remain to serve as role models and mentors for the next generation. More importantly, because the perspectives, creativity and knowledge of a diverse population of scientists are not being tapped, important research questions vital to society are not being asked. Finally, this misrepresentation affects the public perception on the value and impact of Black scientific experts.

The authors make several recommendations as to how such disparities can be eliminated, including the following:

·      Explicitly state that racism persists in the U.S. research enterprise and that it must be expelled

·      Institute policies to immediately achieve racial funding equity

·      Make diversity score-driving criteria, prioritize diverse teams for funding and diversify review panels

·      Train and empower NIH leadership, staff, and grant reviewers and recipients to recognize and stop racism

In addition, the authors recommend how individual scientists and universities, colleges and institutes can move forward, including by recognizing how they might be unintentionally contributing to systemic racism in their academic roles.  Academia, they write, must also move forward from statements of solidarity to transformative organizational changes.

The authors also look to the private sector, including philanthropists and industrial leaders whose companies depend on scientific innovation, and to foundations and professional societies, to help offset racial disparities in research funding. They point out that acting in concert, private and public sectors can enhance the creativity and innovation of their science and bring forward the greater good of society by funding innovative ideas and robust talents of Black scientists.

The corresponding authors are senior author Omolola Eniola-Adefeso , the University Diversity and Social Transformation Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Michigan, and lead author Kelly R. Stevens, assistant professor of laboratory medicine and pathology at the University of Washington School of Medicine and on the bioengineering faculty of the UW College of Engineering.  She is an investigator at the UW Medicine Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine.

Contributing coauthors include the following Engineering faculty: Kristyn S. Masters, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Princess Imoukhuede and Lori A. Setton, Washington University St. Louis; Karmella A, Haynes, Emory University; Elizabeth Cosgriff-Hernandez and Shelly Sakiyama-Elbert, University of Texas at Austin; Muyinatu A. Lediju Bell, Johns Hopkins University; Padmini Rangamani and Karen Christman, University of California San Diego; Stacey Finley, University of Southern California;  Rebecca Willits and Abigail N. Koppes, Northeastern University; Naomi Chesler, University of California-Irvine; Josephine Allen, University of Florida, Gainesville; Joyce N. Wong, Boston University; and Han El-Samad and Tejal Desai, University of California-San Francisco.

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