The National Institute of Health is taking a new tack to boost the success rate of Black scientists and researchers from other underrepresented groups. Up to $20 million a year can be given to neuroscience, drug abuse, and mental health investigators from minority groups.

Walter Koroshetz, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, said at a recent meeting that the program will create a new class of R01. The National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute on Drug Abuse are joining with the NINDS to launch a program aimed at new PIs. The three institutes collaborated on a policy with similar aims that was later pulled because of federal anti discrimination laws.

There has been a long-standing gap between the success rates of black and white scientists in the areas of research supported by the three institutes. The Duke University neurobiologist says he is very pleased that the National Institute of Health is taking action to address the gap. The program is capable of moving the needle.

The data suggests that the funding disparity has narrowed in the past two years. Black applicants had a 24.4% odds of getting at least one new R01), which was 2.2 percentage points lower than for whites. The success rates for all R01-equivalent applications have gone down. Marie Bernard is the chief officer for scientific workforce diversity at the National Institute of Health.

The research community was surprised by the lower success rate for black scientists. Many blame racial bias despite an array of new programs to attract minorities to research and improve training and mentoring.

The proposal could be in a high-priority research area or could bring a diverse group of people together. If each institute awards two more grants to Black scientists each year, the gap would be eliminated.

The policy was released last year. It would have made it possible for investigators fromunderrepresented groups to check a box that would flag their application for program officers

The notice was withdrawn because of legal concerns that linked demographic data to proposals could have led to an impression that applications from underrepresented groups would be prioritized for funding. The National Institute of Health can't make funding decisions on the basis of race or gender.

There is a ratio of applicants with funded proposals to total applicants. Race is self-identifying.

10 15 20 25 30 Funding rate (%) 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 5 0 White Asian Unknown Hispanic Black
(Graphic) C. Bickel/Science; (Data) NIH Office of Extramural Research

The new program is intended to enhance diversity in a very broad sense, and it passed legal muster because of that. The program is not exclusive and all new investigators and at-risk investigators are eligible to apply. If a high-quality proposal isn't funded, an "at-risk" scientist will not have anNIH grant. The program is part of the agency's effort to comply with a mandate from Congress to do more to support early stage investigators.

Up to $5 million per year for 12 to 15 grants each at NIDA and NIMH, and up to $10 million for 25 grants at NIN will be up for grabs when the new program is approved.

The program will allow program officers to fund grants from black and other minorities that missed the funding cutoff for the regular grant pool. He says that this will allow them to correct bias in their system.

There are concerns about the approach. Michael Taffe, a drug abuse researcher at the University of California, San Diego, is worried that top-notch applications from Black PIs will be put into the special program, which could make room for weaker proposals from white PIs. Taffe says fixing the bias in the first place is more beneficial than the other way around.

The program would be more effective if it were in place across the nation's largest research hospital. He says that the wholeNIH should make a commitment.

Taffe thinks that the recent rise in funding rates for Black scientists is due to the fact that they missed the pay line. The analysis is going to be very difficult due to the fact that not all institutions use strict pay lines. Even a small change in grantmaking can have a big impact on the statistical data.

Bernard says that they aren't taking a victory lap when it comes to improving the diversity of grantees. There is more work to be done.