Finding and Funding Black Science

Finding and Funding Black Science

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In many ways, Raynard Kington sees himself as incredibly privileged. After attaining his undergraduate and medical degrees from the University of Michigan, he later completed his M.B.A at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and served in various capacities at the National Institutes of Health, including deputy director. Board certified in internal medicine, public health and preventive medicine, Kington has been president of Grinnell College in Iowa since 2010.

As a prominent African American medical professional and scientist, he recognizes the challenges that can exist for researchers of color in the biomedical community, a reality borne out by the findings of a heavily scrutinized study he co-authored in “Science” journal in the fall of 2011.

More than a year later, that study, which showed that black scientists were less likely to be awarded research monies from the N.I.H. than their white counterparts, has inspired the agency to launch a comprehensive effort to bolster grants made to researchers of color, and increase their overall presence in the scientific community.

These are goals Kington and others see as critical to achieving necessary breakthroughs for all communities.

“I made good choices and the people around me helped me make good choices,” Kington explained in an interview with Loop 21. “I was able to achieve my goals. It wasn’t without challenges to race but each person has their own journey.”

Commissioned by N.I.H., the “Science” study was published in August, 2011. Approximately 83,000 grant applications to the institution were reviewed for the period between 2000 and 2006. The figures were stark for black researchers: for every 100 applications made by a white applicant, 29 received awards; while for every 100 queries made by black scientists, only 16 were funded. A black scientist was one-third less likely than a white counterpart to get a research project financed, the study found. The disparity for Latinos, Asians, Native Americans and women were not as great.

The process of seeking a research grant from N.I.H., which is arguably the primary and most prestigious source of financial support for an independent researcher, other than private institutions, is two steps. A prospective application goes before a committee possibly comprised of up to 40 researchers from outside the agency. Each proposal gets a preliminary score before going before the full selection body for a final score, though only the top half of applications get a second score. The submissions aren’t anonymous but the race and ethnicity of researchers is not requested, either.

“There was a lot of attention related to the fact as to how applications are reviewed,” Kington noted. “My belief is that that is a relatively small part of the problem.”

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