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  • Ioana Patringenaru

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  • Ioana Patringenaru

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A Call to End Funding Discrimination Against Black Scientists in the United States

Network of female biomedical engineering researchers issues call to action in Cell

Representatives from a network of women deans, chairs and distinguished faculty in biomedical engineering are calling upon the National Institutes of Health and other funding agencies to address disparities in allocating support to Black researchers. The group made the call to action in the Jan. 26, 2021 issue of the journal Cell.

Karen Christman.

Karen Christman

Two engineering faculty at the University of California San Diego are coauthors: Karen Christman, associate dean at the Jacobs School of Engineering and bioengineering professor, and Padmini Rangamani, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

In examining the racial inequities and injustices that prevent Black faculty from equitably contributing to science and achieving their full potential, insufficient federal funding for research by Black scientists rose to the top as a key issue.

According to studies of the allocation of National Institutes of Health research funding, Black applicant award rates for research funding has stood at about 55 percent of that of white principal investigators of similar academic achievement. Despite internal reviews of the reasons behind this disparity, and promises to do better, the funding gap continues.

Efforts have been made to improve the pipeline to encourage Black students to prepare for and enter careers as researchers and college and university faculty. But once on the job, lack of research funding can derail these careers. Many universities look to faculty members’ ability to support their research as part of their decisions on tenure and promotions. As a result, NIH funding disparity can end the careers of Black scientists. In addition, without adequate research funding, these scientists can become discouraged and leave their professions.

This means that fewer Black scientists remain to serve as role models and mentors for the next generation. It also means that many important research questions vital to society are not being asked because the perspectives, creativity and knowledge of a diverse population of scientists are not being tapped. The public also does not see the faces or hear the voices of Black scientific experts speaking on vital issues.

The authors of the paper make several recommendations on how research funding disparities can be eliminated. Among the steps funding agencies might take are:

  • Explicitly state that racism persists in the U.S. research enterprise and that it must be expelled.
  • Develop federal funding institute policies to immediately achieve racial funding equity.
  • Incorporate diversity into research proposal scoring criteria; prioritize research teams that exemplify diversity; and diversify proposal review panels.
  • Train funding agency leadership and staff as well as grant reviewers and recipients to recognize and stop racism.

“Scientific colleagues, let us each use our voices and actions to now overcome our profession’s racism and serve as antiracist agents of change,” the researchers wrote in Cell.

Padmini Rangamani.

Padmini Rangamani

They recommended ways that individual scientists and universities, colleges and institutes can move forward. These recommendations include recognizing how they might be unintentionally contributing to systemic racism in their academic roles. Academia, they write, must also move forward from statements of solidarity to transformative organizational changes.

In closing, the authors also look to the private sector, such as philanthropists and industrial leaders whose companies depend on scientific innovation, and to foundations and professional societies, to help offset racial disparities in research funding. The biotech company Genentech is held up as an example of leadership in reducing racial disparities in science, with its creation of a research funding awards program for Black scientists.

Together, private and public sectors can enhance the creativity and innovation of their science and bring forward the greater good of society by funding innovative ideas and robust talents of Black scientists.

The corresponding authors on the paper, “Fund Black Scientists,” are senior author Omolola Eniola-Adefeso, the University Diversity and Social Transformation Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Michigan, and lead author Kelly R. Stevens, Assistant Professor of Bioengineering and Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at the University of Washington School of Medicine and UW College of Engineering. Stevens also is an investigator at the UW Medicine Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine.

Other engineering faculty researchers co-authoring the paper are: Kristyn S. Masters University of Wisconsin-Madison; Princess Imoukhuede and Lori A. Setton, Washington University St. Louis; Karmella A. Haynes, Emory University; Elizabeth Cosgriff-Hernandes and Shelly Sakiyama-Elbert, University of Texas at Austin; Muyinatu A. Lediju Bell, Johns Hopkins University; Padmini Rangamani and Karen Christman, University of California San Diego; Stacey Finley, University of Southern California; Rebecca Willits and Abigail N. Koppes, Northeastern University; Naomi Chesler, University of California-Irvine; Josephine Allen, University of Florida, Gainesville; Joyce N. Wong, Boston University; Hana El-Samad and Tejal Desai, University of California San Francisco also contributed to the Cell paper.

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