NSF grant decisions reflect systemic racism, study argues

White scientists are more likely to win a grant from the National Science Foundation than researchers from other racial and ethnic groups, according to an independent analysis of more than 2 decades of NSF data on its merit review process.

The analysis supports earlier studies finding similar racial disparities in the funding of scientists by other federal agencies, notably the National Institutes of Health (NIH). And its authors—a team led by geochemist Christine Yifeng Chen, a postdoc at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory—attribute the gap in NSF funding rates, with white scientists at the top and Asian researchers at the bottom, to “systemic racism.”

The NSF funding disparities “have cascading impacts that perpetuate a cumulative advantage to White [principal investigators] across all of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics,” they write in their study, posted earlier this month on the Center for Open Science preprint site.

The team gave a copy of its analysis to NSF leadership, which is not challenging its conclusions. NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan “shares these concerns [about] systemic racial disparities in funding at NSF and other federal agencies,” an agency spokesperson says.

The researchers delved into detailed annual NSF reports that contain data on 1 million proposals submitted to the agency between 1996 and 2019. The reports mention racial disparities only in passing, but Chen and her team focused on them after hearing complaints from senior nonwhite colleagues about what they felt was an uneven playing field in winning NSF grants.

“I think it’s significant that this project was initiated by early-career scientists,” Chen says. “It speaks to the prevailing culture in academia that allows the status quo to be perpetuated. We felt that if we didn’t do the analysis, nobody else would.”

Every scientist submitting a proposal to NSF faces stiff competition; overall success rates fluctuated between 22% and 34% over the study period. But white scientists consistently did better, Chen and colleagues found. (Scientists are asked to voluntarily provide their race and ethnicity when applying for a grant.)

In 2019, for example, NSF funded 31.3% of proposals from white scientists, versus an overall rate of 27.4%. In contrast, the success rate was 22.4% for Asian scientists and 26.5% for Black scientists. Proposals from Latino scientists were funded 29% of the time, a rate slightly above average but below the rate for white scientists.

Chen and colleagues translate the higher success rates into what they call “surplus awards.” In 2019, when NSF received about 42,000 proposals, the team calculated that white scientists received 798 surplus grants. The cumulative surplus over 20 years was 12,820 awards.

In contrast, Asian scientists received 460 fewer awards in 2019 than they would have had their success rate been comparable, with a cumulative “unfunded” total of 9701 awards. (Asian scientists submit the second most proposals of the various groups every year, roughly half the number sent in by white scientists.) The relative advantage for white scientists has steadily grown, the analysis shows, from 3 percentage points above the agency’s average success rate in 1999 to 14 percentage points above in 2019.

For Black scientists, the funding gap over that period was smaller, but still significant. (Black researchers submit one proposal for every 20 proposals NSF receives from white scientists.) The average funding rate for Black scientists was 8 percentage points below that of white scientists, according to the preprint’s authors. Pacific Islander and Native Hawaiian scientists, an even smaller cohort of applicants, had success rates 11 percentage points below that of white scientists. In contrast, Latino scientists—who submit about 50% more proposals to NSF than do Black scientists—have done slightly better than the norm but were 2 percentage points below the success rate for white scientists in 2019.

Funding issue

A study of racial disparities in National Science Foundation funding concludes that white researchers reaped a large cumulative “surplus” of awards between 1999 and 2019, whereas Asian applicants experienced significant “underfunding,” with other groups falling in between.

White +12,820
American Indian/Native Alaskan +80
Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander –17
Hispanic/Latino –175
Black/African American –417
Asian –9701
Data: C. Chen, et al., OSF Preprints (2022) doi:10.31219/

About 75% of the proposals NSF receives each year are classified as research proposals. The remaining requests are to support education and training, equipment and facilities, conferences, and other activities. White scientists enjoy an even larger advantage over most other groups in winning research awards, the study found. For nonresearch awards, most nonwhite groups did better than the NSF-wide average.

In 2011, a team led by University of Kansas, Lawrence, economist Donna Ginther found similar racial disparities among NIH grant recipients, including a gap of up to 13 percentage points in success rates between white and Black scientists. That gap shrunk—but did not disappear—in follow-up studies that accounted for such factors as an applicant’s publication history, prior funding, age, academic rank, and how much research takes place at their institution.

Even so, former NIH Director Francis Collins last year apologized to “individuals in the biomedical research enterprise who have endured disadvantages due to structural racism.” NIH has tried to reduce disparities with programs designed to increase the success of Black applicants.

Unlike NIH with Ginther, NSF did not give Chen’s team access to applicant data that would have allowed it to do such a multivariate analysis. “That information would have been extremely valuable for looking at issues of intersectionality,” says co-author Aradhna Tripati, a geoscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “We also could have looked at the impact of NSF’s existing programs to foster equity and broader participation in science.”

Even without that extra level of analysis, the study’s findings appear sound, says Susan White, director of the statistical research center at the American Institute of Physics. “It may not be exactly the number [the authors] present, but I don’t doubt that the disparity is real, and serious,” she says.

An NSF spokesperson says although the agency is proud of its array of programs designed to address equity and inclusion, “there is still much [work] to do.”

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