Michigan Engineering News

Mario Gutierrez consults Prof. Lola Eniola while using fluorescent microscopy to study the effect of red blood rigidification on the thermodynamics of blood flow.

How to end discrimination in health research funding

Network of U.S. biomedical engineering researchers calls to end funding disparities between Black and white scientists.

White researchers are nearly twice as likely to be awarded a grant than Black scientists of similar academic achievement, studies of National Institutes of Health funding programs show—and a group of 19 biomedical engineering leaders is calling on NIH and other funding agencies to address the stark disparity. In 2019 alone, the gap amounted to $32 million.

The authors of the perspective piece published in the Jan. 26, 2021, issue of the journal Cell are representatives of a network of women deans, chairs and distinguished faculty. 

“Black scientists in biomedicine are not getting funding, which means they’re not getting tenure, and they’re not getting promoted,” said Omolola Eniola-Adefeso, the University Diversity and Social Transformation Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Michigan and senior author of the paper. 

“When they leave the profession, we lose these individuals in the classroom—and research shows that women and minorities persist in science and engineering when they see people who look like them,” she added.

It also means that many research questions vital to the Black community and society at large are not being asked because the perspectives, creativity, and knowledge of a diverse population of scientists are not being tapped. 

In addition, the public does not see the faces or hear the voices of Black scientific experts speaking on important issues. This contributes to distrust of medicine and medical technology in the Black community—including the COVID-19 vaccines.

“If science doesn’t represent all these communities, if healthcare doesn’t represent them, how can we expect to serve them equally?” asked lead author Kelly R. Stevens, assistant professor of bioengineering and of laboratory medicine and pathology at the University of Washington School of Medicine and the UW College of Engineering.

The authors recommend several steps that funding agencies can take to eliminate disparities, including:

  • Explicitly state that racism persists in the United States research enterprise and that it must be expelled.
  • Develop policies that will immediately achieve racial funding equity.
  • Incorporate diversity into research proposal scoring criteria.
  • Prioritize research teams that exemplify diversity.
  • Diversify proposal review panels.
  • Train funding agency leadership and staff, and grant reviewers and recipients, to recognize and stop racism.

The authors also suggested ways individual scientists and universities, colleges and institutes can address discriminatory trends in academic processes. And they charted out a role for the private sector, including foundations, professional societies, philanthropists as well as to industrial leaders whose companies depend on scientific innovation, to help offset racial disparities in research funding. 

The authors heralded biotech company Genentech as a leader, as the firm recently created a research funding program for Black scientists. If funding agencies and academic institutions won’t address the gap, the remaining $31.5 million is well within range for the biomedical industry.

Eniola-Adefeso is also a member of the U-M Biointerfaces Institute. Stevens is also 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-Hernandez 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 K. Willits and Abigail N. Koppes, Northeastern University; Naomi Chesler, University of California Irvine; Josephine Allen, University of Florida in Gainesville; Joyce Y. Wong, Boston University; and Hana El-Samad and Tejal Desai, University of California San Francisco. 

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