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A call to address racial disparities in research funding

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

In a new paper published in the journal Cell on Tuesday, a group of 19 researchers, representing 15 universities, is calling upon the National Institutes of Health and other funding agencies to address a history of under-funding projects led by Black scientists, and to put into place systems that will create equity moving forward.

Two Northeastern professors are among the researchers who signed the paper. All of the signatories are women who work in the bioengineering and biomedical engineering fields, and represent an even wider network of colleagues, they write.

Left, Abigail Koppes, assistant professor of chemical engineering. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University. Right, Rebeca Willits, professor of chemical engineering and chair of the department. Courtesy photo.

“Our nationwide network of BME women faculty collectively argue that racial funding disparity by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) remains the most insidious barrier to success of Black faculty in our profession,” they write.

According to research referenced in the paper, in 2006, it was half as likely that a project led by a Black scientist would receive funding from the NIH, compared to similar projects by white scientists. A decade later, the disparity was the same, they write.

Rebecca Willits, professor of chemical engineering and chair of the department at Northeastern, and Abigail N. Koppes, assistant professor of chemical engineering, are among the researchers who signed onto the paper. Both are also affiliated with the Department of Bioengineering at Northeastern.

The researchers focused most of their attention on the NIH because it is the largest funding source for biomedical and bioengineering research projects in the U.S., Willits says. But the researchers also call upon private and academic institutions to address funding gaps in their own ways.

“We’re looking for actions that address some of the racial disparities in our fields, and across academics more generally,” Willits says.

The researchers outline several specific actions in the paper. They call upon the NIH to explicitly acknowledge the presence of racism in decision-making procedures, institute policies to achieve racial funding equity, prioritize diversity in research teams and review panels, and train NIH staff to recognize and stop racism in all parts of the organization.

The paper highlights certain NIH programs, designed to level the playing field in other ways, that the writers say could be fairly easily leveraged to more equitably distribute research funding. For example, the organization already has an “Early-Stage Investigator Program” that specifically funds projects from new researchers.

In the same way, researchers write, “NIH must institute an ‘equity’ policy or program for Black investigators that eliminates racial funding disparity.”

Koppes, Willits, and the other researchers on the paper say that the issue has long-reaching effects for their Black colleagues.

Decisions about promotion and tenure, for example, are often based in part upon the amount of funding professors receive for their projects. And greater diversity is fundamentally good for scientific discovery, the researchers write.

“Numerous studies have shown that diverse teams generate the most creative, innovative, and impactful solutions and science,” the paper says. “Innovative progress strongly depends on the degree of our collective differences.”

Koppes says, “Oftentimes NIH funding is the gold standard in terms of being promoted. This not only really impacts a person’s whole career trajectory, but their ability to make an impact in science as well.”

For media inquiries, please contact Shannon Nargi at s.nargi@northeastern.edu or 617-373-5718.

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