The color of research

C. Scott Litch Contributor
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On August 18, 2011, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) released a commissioned report that “identifies gaps in NIH funding success rates for black researchers.”

Reportedly, black applicants from 2000 to 2006 were 10 percentage points less likely than white applicants to be awarded research project grants from the NIH, after controlling for factors that influence the likelihood of a grant award. One might presume, or hope, that the only factor influencing grant awards was scientific merit.

Of course, the report immediately promoted an apologia of political correctness, as the NIH Director and Principal Deputy Director called this finding unacceptable.

How, you ask, does NIH believe that bias factors into the grants review process? After all, the ethnicity of researchers is not included on application materials reviewed by reviewers?

Obviously, you are not fully versed in the range of political correctness and white guilt that must be prominently on display at all federal agencies.

NIH suspects there is conscious or unconscious bias in the scientific review process.  Their theory is that reviewers make guesses as to researcher ethnicity based on names, then act accordingly and destructively. That is, this Chinese-sounding name must reflect a pretty good researcher, but this Polish-sounding name concerns me.

Does NIH really think such blatant bias exists in this day and age?  Yes, that is exactly what NIH is saying:

“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.”

There is also an implicit concern that reviewers might give more credence to an institution with a history of excellent medical research.  God forbid that should happen.  No, it is simply time to man the battle stations of political correctness.

The NIH Director reports: “This study shows that we still have a long way to go.  It is imperative that NIH and its partners in the biomedical research community take decisive steps to identify causes and implement remedies. NIH is already moving forward with a framework for action.”

Interestingly, according to this same report, although Asian applicants were also less likely to receive an award than white applicants, those differences disappeared when the sample was limited to U.S. citizens.  And the probability of awards to Hispanic applicants did not differ significantly from white applicants.

One might be naive and presume that NIH wants to simply find cures and effective treatments for serous diseases. One might also assume that so long as no discrimination or bias results in the best proposals not being funded, who cares about the race or ethnicity of the researcher?

In this era of political correctness and race-identity politics, you would be wrong:

“In order to improve the health outcomes of all Americans, it’s important for the biomedical workforce to reflect the diversity of the population,” said Donna Ginther, Ph.D., professor of economics at the University of Kansas and lead author of the study. “As the population becomes increasingly diverse, we will continue to get further from that goal unless the community intervenes.”

It is quite amazing that such statements would issue from any institution of higher education.  How the “diversity” of researchers matters one iota to fighting illness and disease is quite baffling.

While busily apologizing for being white and male, NIH will now try to increase the number of reviewers from underrepresented populations. Presumably, these reviewers will also be biased, but in a good way, in order to help those of the same ethnicity.

So at the premier national health research institution, our federal government will encourage reviewers to say, “Hey, that last name sounds like mine, and since our race sticks together and sticks it to non-members of our race, let’s give this person a grant!”

Does the skin color of whoever finds a cure for cancer, diabetes, or Alzheimer’s disease really matter?

It is both sad and pathetic to see political correctness infect what should be the scientific and non-partisan world of medical research.

C. Scott Litch is the chief operating officer and general counsel for a non-profit association. Scott is a licensed attorney, Certified Associated Executive, and also holds a masters degree in public policy. He is the author of The Principled Conservative in 21st Century America.

C. Scott Litch