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January 26, 2021

Masters part of call for NIH to address racial funding disparities

Written By: Tom Ziemer


University of Wisconsin-Madison biomedical engineer Kristyn Masters is among 19 women faculty at major research universities around the country to co-author a commentary published today (Jan. 26, 2021) in the journal Cell that forcefully calls upon the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to address documented disparities in the agency’s funding of Black researchers.

They point to previous studies showing that, for Black principal investigators, the probability of receiving an NIH award was approximately 55% compared to their white peers of similar academic achievement from 2000-06 and again in 2014-16—even after publication of those earlier findings.

The 19 coauthors urge the agency to explicitly acknowledge that racism persists in the U.S. research enterprise and that it must be expelled; implement policies to immediately achieve racial funding equity; make research team diversity part of the scoring criteria for proposals, prioritize diverse teams for funding, and diversify review panels; and train and empower agency leadership, staff, grant reviewers and grant recipients to recognize and stop racism.

Masters, a Vilas Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering and H.I. Romnes Faculty Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is among the Cell commentary’s authors, who represent a larger group of more than 260 women faculty members. Masters drafted a letter to the NIH in 2020 outlining steps that could improve equity in grant review at the agency. Over the course of several months and through the contributions of many researchers, Masters’ initial launch point evolved into the piece in Cell, though she’s quick to credit lead authors Kelly Stevens of the University of Washington and Omolola Eniola-Adefeso of the University of Michigan for their vision and for spearheading that transformation.

“Academics generally recognize that bias exists, but somehow we’re acting as if it’s not also present in grant peer review,” says Masters. “We talk about bias in so many other areas of our professional and personal lives, yet so many of the actions we’re taking at the department, college or university level are not being mirrored by our NIH reviewer experience.”

Masters points to the efforts NIH has made to support early career researchers through modified policies and funding mechanisms for so-called new and early stage investigators.

“I think NIH needs to put in equivalent effort to close the funding gap when it comes to race,” she says. “It has really focused on this issue of making sure young investigators get funding, and I really want to see it be as concerned about the racial gap in funding.”

Masters and her coauthors also implore private sector companies, nonprofits and academic institutions to take steps such as creating funding opportunities and changing hiring, promotion and tenure committee training. And they say individual scientists can contribute by more deeply educating themselves on racism, actively seeking collaborations with Black faculty, and actively ensuring proposals from Black researchers receive thorough consideration during grant review. Masters says she’s tried to take on a more activist role in her own NIH grant review service by calling out instances where implicit bias may be skewing the assessments of proposals.

“I hope our call to action motivates other colleagues to engage in grassroots efforts to advocate for change and justice in the scientific community,” she says.