Does a Lack of Diversity in Research Funding Threaten the Future of Biomedical Research?

New findings show that between 1991 and 2020, Black and female researchers were "significantly underrepresented" when it came to getting research grants, revealing a growing funding gap among investigators based on race, gender, and ethnicity.

Does a Lack of Diversity in Research Funding Threaten the Future of Biomedical Research?

There's no question that the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) movement has come a long way since its inception in the sixties. However, when it comes to funding biomedical research and allocating grants to investigators, we may not have come as far as we thought.

New findings show that between 1991 and 2020, Black and female researchers were "significantly underrepresented" when it came to getting research grants, revealing a growing funding gap among investigators based on race, gender, and ethnicity.

Not a New Problem

The issue of research funding disparities isn't a new one. In 2011, a paper in the journal Science exposed a notable racial gap in funds granted by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). The following year, the NIH Advisory Committee made thirteen recommendations to improve representation and diversity in biomedical research, and that work has been ongoing.

Unfortunately, the latest findings show a potential threat to the integrity of biomedical research if we don't see more diversity in research funding.

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Super Principal Investigators

A recent cross-sectional study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in early 2023, focused on principal investigators (PIs) who had received three or more grants from the NIH between 1991 and 2020. Those PIs were referred to as super principal investigators (SPIs).

Why are SPIs notable?

Although getting any grant for a research project is already a sign of career success, holding multiple research grants impacts things like recruitment, salary, promotion, resource allocation, and decision-making power. SPIs have become the "elite" class of principal investigators, gaining more access and wielding more influence than their single-grant-holding colleagues.

The study found that during the nearly three-decade period, the proportion of PI to SPI increased three-fold, and NIH funding allocated to them more than doubled. However, results also showed that SPI status was consistently unequal at every analysis stage across racial, ethnic, and gender lines.

Even after considering factors like career stage and level of qualifications, women remained 34% less likely than men to be SPIs, while Black PIs were 40% less likely to achieve advanced status compared to their White counterparts. In fact, there were only 12 Black women with SPI status in 2020, in stark contrast to the 1,839 White men holding the same position.

A Substantial Threat

The authors who carried out the study were alarmed by the findings, stating that the lack of minority research funding posed "a substantial threat" to biomedical research in the country.

The researchers believe that the reasons behind their findings are likely a combination of many factors, including issues within the system, the structure of the research field, and people's attitudes and beliefs.

a pictorial image of diverse men and women in clinical research
A JAMA study found that in 2020, the ratio of Black female SPIs to White men was 1 to 153.

Barriers Preventing Diversity and Inclusion in Research Grants

Last year, a comprehensive report from the University of Oxford identified the main barriers to inclusive research funding for scientists from underrepresented groups.

  • Systemic inequality: requirements that exclude certain researchers
  • Accessibility issues: difficulty accessing systems, uploading documents
  • Missing support structure: lack of high-impact mentorship for underrepresented researchers
  • Information gaps: disparity in information availability about opportunities or selection criteria
  • Selection bias: limited understanding of DEI issues by those assessing grants, proposals, and candidates

A Lot of Work to Do

According to Marie Bernard, NIH's chief officer for scientific workforce diversity, the NIH has made some progress, although she admits that there's still "a lot of work to do." In a 2021 paper published in eLife, the authors point to three main strategies that can help bridge the persistent research funding disparities:

1. Increasing data transparency

By regularly reviewing statistics related to race and ethnicity and publishing information on study sessions, the NIH can address disparities in grant funding. Additionally, the Center for Scientific Review (CSR) can publish race and ethnicity data for study sections.

2. Using funding cut-off points

Changing the way funding decisions are made can also help reduce the gap in research funding: for example, by choosing to fund projects by Black researchers who are ranked between the 15th and 35th percentiles, instead of funding lower-ranked projects by White researchers. By prioritizing research topics more frequently proposed by PIs from underrepresented groups, we can reduce funding disparities and improve the average quality of funded applications.

3. Bringing back the top-down approach

New researchers often need help with low grant application success rates. In the past, a top-down approach was used to help them, including relaxed rules and more leniency from reviewers without deep investigations or extra training. A similar system could help address funding issues for minority researchers and other underrepresented groups. Fortunately, we can immediately implement these measures since they've been used before to help early-stage researchers.

Progress and Promise

The most recent report gathered data up to 2020, so there is hope that things have already begun to improve. In 2021, the NIH reaffirmed its commitment to diversity in research funding shortly after U.S. President Joe Biden signed an executive order giving government support to advancing racial equity. Then, in 2022, the NIH introduced new funding options for supporting diversity and inclusion through mentorship programs. They also provided more funding for programs aimed at increasing diversity among people involved in health research, such as PRIDE.

The Canadian government has also published a new guideline of best practices for diversity and inclusion in research, and the U.K.'s National Institute for Health and Care Research has followed suit.

Are you interested in finding out more about biomedical research conducted by SPIs? Visit Studypages to see if you can become a participant in a study, and Sign Up for our Pulse Newsletter to get the latest on research news.

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