Thought on the Ginther report on NIH funding disparity

May 24 2015 Published by under Fixing the NIH, NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

I had a thought about Ginther just after hearing a radio piece on the Asian-Americans that are suing Harvard over entrance discrimination. 

The charge is that Asian-American students need to have better grades and scores  than white students to receive an admissions bid. 

The discussion of the Ginther study revolved around the finding that African-American applicant PIs were less likely than PIs of other groups to receive NIH grant funding. This is because Asian-Americans, for example, did as well as white PIs. Our default stance, I assume, is that being a white PI is the best that it gets. So if another group does as well, this is evidence of a lack of bias. 

But what if Asian-American PIs submit higher quality applications as a group? 
How would we ever know if there was discrination against them in NIH grant award?

20 responses so far

  • Alex says:

    I suppose you could ask if Asian American PIs are otherwise more productive than white PIs with the same grant scores. However, productivity in publication means getting by peer review gatekeepers, and so the same question of bias comes up. Similar publication rates could mean no bias, or could mean higher quality to compensate for bias.

    Patents, maybe?

    Or you do an experiment, where you give reviewers identical grant applications, but some of them have names at the top that are common among white American PIs, and some have names that are common among Asian American PIs. And this has all of the limitations of any experiment--blinding, design, reproducibility, statistical power, etc.

  • Morgan Price says:

    I heard somewhere that Asians who were not native English speakers got their grants funded at lower rates...

  • drugmonkey says:

    That was part of Ginther, although if memory serves the categorization was based on whether the PhD was a U.S. vs a non-US institution.

  • Selerax says:

    Some time ago you blogged about Richard Nakamura announcing a proper study of bias in grant review, with anonymized proposals.

    http://drugmonkey.scientopia.org/2014/08/20/you-came-so-close-nature-editorial-staff/

    What happened to that? Has anybody heard anything since then?

  • drugmonkey says:

    I am aware of at least one effort in the direction of checking the reliability of review. I can't talk about it much but the design was so bad as to be actively harmful, should CSR attempt to conclude anything from it.

    I await news of any effort to assess a study section's worth of apps in multiple parallel sections which is the best way to start approaching a study of potential bias.

  • jmz4 says:

    I would absolutely believe that Asians and Asian/Americans are discriminated against by the scientific establishment. There's definitely a culture of xenophobia as regards Asian trainees, as well as ingrained expectations that they should/will work themselves harder than white students. I've been shocked by PIs evaluations of their own Asian trainees as essentially "just hands", and how they "don't want to be PIs", despite these not being accurate reflections of the trainee in question.
    I can't imagine this doesn't translate into the grant review process when an Asian sounding name comes up.

  • Juan Lopez says:

    I don't doubt the discrimination of Asians, but Reviewers are smart people and they discriminate much more subtly than that. I wouldn't be surprised if discrimination is worst for Thai/Vietnamese/Chinese than for Japanese. I am also assuming here that by Asians you don't mean Indians, Pakistanis, Iraqis, Iranians, Afghans, etc. Discrimination against these is probably much worse.

  • CD0 says:

    This is purely anecdotal but what I have seen in study section service at least twice is a strong and unjustified protection of applications from Asian PIs by Asian reviewers.

  • drugmonkey says:

    And you've never seen a strong and unjustified protection of an application from a white PI by a white reviewer?

  • dsks says:

    "This is purely anecdotal but what I have seen in study section service at least twice is a strong and unjustified protection of applications from Asian PIs by Asian reviewers."

    I appeal to anecdata as much as anyone, but for the really loaded personal observations, I think you need more than 2 N 😉 As it is, there's no way of balancing this observation by knowing how many Asian applicants get their grants savaged to the point of triage as a result of reviews from Asian colleagues.

    jmz4 "There's definitely a culture of xenophobia as regards Asian trainees, as well as ingrained expectations that they should/will work themselves harder than white students."

    True dat. And based on the frequency in which I've witnessed these sorts of stereotypes being appealed to in public, this sport of nonsense is apparently perceived as socially and professionally acceptable. So it goes.

  • lurker says:

    Asians are oft called the "model minority", somehow becoming the most frequent minority among bioscience faculty that we are no longer "under-represented". Check out a couple biology dept faculty listings, besides being overwhelmingly white, the only other appreciable non-white are the asians. I've frequently wondered what cultural attitudes allow this versus the other more 'under-represented' minorities.

    As a GenX asian, my attitude was to work hard to assimilate and ascend based on my credentials and achievements only. I submit the current asians suing Harvard are doing so because of their Millenials' "attitudes". All the Ginther discussions are important but not going to go anywhere because I think the Generational Gap and Power Imbalance is the greater threat to all future progress, both on the diversity of races and career stages. The MHC comments on a previous topic says it all.

    Boomers had their fun, GenX's are getting the tight squeeze now, and like DeNiro said to the Millenials at NYU's graduation recently: "You're Fucked!"

  • Alex says:

    From time to time I hear academics make comments about Asians that could definitely be construed as "There are too many of them" in (circle all that apply: our field, STEM more broadly, higher ed in general). Most of these people say all the right things about other ethnic groups, and say them at great length.

    I think it's pretty clear that white people have decided that the only way to make affirmative action (or policies with similar goals but different names/details) "work" is to do it at the expense of Asian applicants on the margin rather than white applicants on the margin. People in the blogosphere and meatspace alike can get all lathered up in arguments over whether it's just to favor the woman/African-American/Hispanic/etc. on the margin over the white male on the margin, but the reality is that the white male on the margin AND the woman/black/Hispanic/etc. on the margin are going to be favored over the Asian male on the margin. I mean, if white people are writing the rules, what are the odds that we'll write the rules to work against OUR children, nieces, nephews, grand-kids, etc.?

  • Selerax says:

    What a color-blind admission policy looks like:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/ucs-experience-with-an-affirmative-action-ban/2014/04/23/d5a196aa-cb14-11e3-93eb-6c0037dde2ad_story.html

    "This year, the [University of California system] offered admission to more than 22,000 students who are Asian American, more than 17,000 who are Hispanic/Latino, more than 16,000 who are non-Hispanic white and more than 2,500 who are African American."

    Berkeley is 43% Asian (25% White, 14% Latino, 3% Black).

    By contrast, Stanford, which is not bound by the affirmative action ban, is "only" 23% Asian, 7.5% Black, 13% Latino... And 43% White.

    A possible interpretation is that "egalitarian" admission policies (no race-based AA, no legacies) hurt Whites almost as much as Blacks, to the benefit of

  • dsks says:

    De Niro also said, “A new door is opening for you. A door to a lifetime of rejection,” he said. “It’s inevitable. It’s what graduates call the real world. … How do you cope with it? I hear that Valium and Vicodin work.”

    Hahaha... Wait, was he talking to art or STEM grads?

  • DJMH says:

    "Berkeley is 43% Asian (25% White, 14% Latino, 3% Black).

    By contrast, Stanford, which is not bound by the affirmative action ban, is "only" 23% Asian, 7.5% Black, 13% Latino... And 43% White."

    But Stanford also draws more out of state undergrads, who are less likely to be Asian anyhow.

  • newbie PI says:

    As a native English speaker and someone who is low on the totem pole of my department, I get a lot of requests from my Asian colleagues to critique and proofread their grants. The impression I get from them is that they feel that bias against imperfect English is the most severe bias on a study section.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I don't know that it is a bias but for certain sure the clarity of the writing is hugely important.

  • Grumble says:

    Imperfect English generates irritation, not bias. I try to be as understanding as possible with grants and papers written by non-native English speakers. Just imagine if you had to write your papers in Chinese. Would you still be a scientist? That said, if I can't understand it, I can't evaluate it.

  • Asian Quarterback says:

    It is always going to be hard to tell if there are no Asian Quarterbacks because of discrimination or just because we suck at football.

  • Juan Lopez says:

    I know plenty of Asians with excellent writing and enough Americans with crappy writing.
    Writing in a second, third, fourth, nth language is more difficult indeed, but it's no excuse for sloppy writing.

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