Thursday, October 20, 2011

Dog-eared Culture, Dogged Divide

It appears that further proof of the ineffectiveness of programmatic attempts to diversify the staid upper-echelons of the biomedical science research enterprise has been garnered. A recently released study demonstrates that African American researchers don't fare so well in the great race for R01 funding.  A write-up of the results (with supporting material),  a response from Francis Collins, and an accompanying news piece were published by Science on August 19th. Here is a brief description from the magazine:
Workforce diversity has been considered central to the U.S. NIH objective of improving the nation’s health through research. Ginther et al. (p. 1015; see the Policy Forum by Tabak and Collins) estimate the association between the self-identiļ¬ed race or ethnicity of an applicant for an NIH R01 research grant and the probability of receiving an award from 2000 to 2006. After controlling for demographics, educational background, training, prior research, and employer the authors found that black applicants were significantly less likely to receive research funding than white applicants.
I am an African American female biophysics PhD (never did a postdoc, never submitted an R01) and I haven't used a pipette or conducted a Fourier transform in over a decade. Still, I suppose I should take the time to articulate an opinion, right?

This study seems to confirm what people have instinctively knows for a long time. The level of analysis required was significant and it's a good think that scientists aren't afraid of numbers and statistics. However, I do fear that we are a bit timid in asking questions... Yes, the magnitude of the problem is now better defined, but the report doesn't point towards a good solution nor does it better illuminate the roots of the problem.

As a public agency, I do see the obligation to try and distribute funds and opportunity in a fair and equitable way. It is also the agency's responsibility to demonstrate the existence of a problem to the best of its ability. After all, such a premier science agency cannot be seen acting on a "hunch." However, by not asking a bold, meaningful and adequately targeted question I don't feel that the NIH will acquire the platform from which to act with purpose and to good effect.

The McKinsey Quarterly just came out with a piece titled "Competing through data: Three experts offer their game plans." This piece likens the collection of data with opportunity and claims that, "[m]ost great revolutions in science are preceded by revolutions in measurement." What more can the science community gain by better understanding the plight of the African-American PhD?  Can this lead to a revolution in science?

It's fact that race exists as does racism. But what are the limits to determining whether either is the root cause of the disparity? Similarly, I agree that the diversity is good (see In Professor’s Model, Diversity = Productivity, a NY Times interview with  Scott E. Page, an economist who believes in the power and practicality of  diversity of all sorts), but I wonder if it always relevant?

The continued disparity in the achievement of African American biomedical researchers should be of concern to everyone and finding resolution will require openness and a willingness to engage in difficult and uncomfortable discussions. Which questions will help ensure that the perspectives and talent held by African Americans are better realized? More generally, what can we therefore learn about how our human resources are encouraged and utilized? Can we measure opportunity lost and devise plans to maximize promise?  Can we achieve this through data collection?

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