The twitter of the NIH Director, newly appointed Monica M. Bertagnoli, M.D., posted a press release about a recently published paper.
In the event Twitter / X messes up these links, it reads: An #NIH-funded study of more than 11k individuals of African descent uncovered two genetic variants that correlated with a common form of #glaucoma, highlighting the essential role of diversity in genetic research.
The tweet then links to the press release from Penn Medicine from which we learn the paper in question is Verma et al. (and what an alia it is!) 2024, “A multi-cohort genome-wide association study in African ancestry individuals reveals risk loci for primary open-angle glaucoma“.
Great, right? As my few remaining Readers well know, the publication of Hoppe et al. in 2019 told us, well, “Topic choice contributes to the lower rate of NIH awards to African-American/black scientists”. That lower rate of NIH awards was, of course, the now infamous Ginther gap identified in Ginther et al., 2011 and replicated in Hoppe et al. 2019. That Hoppe paper also led to some excuse making from Mike Lauer and colleagues which blamed the disparity of NIH support for grants focused on topics of greatest interest to Black applicant PIs on their “funding ecology*”. This set of revelations broadened the attention of those of us who care about such things from a tight focus on PIs and applications to think more generally about disparities in health-related research.
So I should be delighted that the NIH is bragging about a study that addresses a population which may have a five fold greater risk of glaucoma and a 15 fold greater risk of being blinded by glaucoma. (The Penn Med press release, to their credit cited their sources, see links.) I should be delighted they are funding this research. And I am.
But we need to delve a little deeper because it is informative about the whole topic-based funding disparity and the NIH responses to that little problem.
The press release cites the paper’s NIH support: “This research was funded primarily by the National Eye Institute (1R01EY023557-5701) (sic) and the Vision Research Core Grant (P30 EY001583)“. The paper itself lists an impressive amount of support including:
The Genetics of Glaucoma in People of African Descent (GGLAD) study was funded by the National Eye
Institute and National Human Genome Research Center (U54HG009826). ADAGES3-Genetics was supported by R01EY023704, and other support included R01EY011008, R01EY019869, R01 EY021818, P30 EY022589, T32 EY026590,”
This work was also funded by the Cleveland Institute for Computational Biology, NIH Core grants (P30
EY025585 and P30 EY011373) and unrestricted grants from Research to Prevent Blindness to Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) and Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of CWRU. J.C.B. and T.G.K. are also supported by NIH R01 EY033829.
It seems weird that a grant in year -01 is being cited for a Cell paper, given the scope and timeline for publishing, so it is worth taking a look at 1R01EY023557-01 Primary Open Angle African-American Glaucoma Genetics Study Renewal (Joan M. O’Brien PI, 04/01/2014-3/31/2026). We quickly see the year was mis-cited since the most recent competitive review was in FY2021 and it is currently in year -08. Penn Med PR flacks messed up, all makes sense now. For grins, P30 EY001583 P30 Core Grant for Vision Research (Claire H. Mitchell, PD, 09/01/1997-08/31/2015) is currently in Year -49.
So why am I blogging and why am I grumpy? Well, this project and the associated funding are evidence of the sort of established scientific colonialism that some of us fear will be, going forward, the result of any NIH push to focus on the topic-disparity as a dodge to get around the disparity of funding of Black PIs. The dodging and weaving Lauer’s data analysis did with careful selection/defining of grants on topics of disproportionate interest to Black PIs regardless of the PI race was a clue to what was to come. The concern that I and others have is that the simple statistics (Black PIs are maybe 2-4% of applicants to the NIH) of dilution means that any topic-focused funding going forward that is “blind” to PI characteristics would fund more non-Black PIs than Black PIs to work on those topics of disproportionate interest to Black PIs. This is similar to the dilution caused by including poverty of upbringing in the NIH’s FOA that reference their interest in diversity. Such as, oh, I don’t know, PAR-22-181. This dilution on funding projects of disproportionate interest to Black PIs is worsened, of course, by the underlying bias against Black PIs, or as Nakamura et al. (2021) reported, the bias in favor of white PIs, if it is not addressed. Right?
Many of us are already aware of the sort of scientific colonialism whereby majoritarian investigators get grants, build research empires and publish fancy papers, maybe even make their whole careers, on their scientific focus on health concerns of minority populations in the US. In my field, substance use disorders, I was first struck years ago by how some of the majorly funded folks working with human subjects tended to report subject samples highly enriched for African-Americans, even if race/ethnicity based comparisons were in no way part of their research. Their research groups were not correspondingly enriched in Black investigators, certainly not at the PI level.
It turns out this recent glaucoma study is an example of the kind. The press release quotes 4th author Salowe, co-senior author Ritchie and co-senior author O’Brien, all of whom appear to be Ginger-American on a quick Google. There is also a quote from co-first, listed-first author Verma who, along with co-first, listed-second author Gudiseva and third author Chavali, does not appear to be Black. I didn’t look up every author on this long list but suffice it to say there are middle authors affiliated with Nigerian and Ghanaian universities that appear to be Black…presumably African and not African-American. A quick google on the two from a South African University suggests they are not Black.
This is scientific colonialism.
Sure, one can observe that there are some positive outcomes. But this is not the question. The question is whether we can arrive at these positive research outcomes in a way that does not continually amp up the funding disparity and bias of the NIH. And of course we can. No, it cannot be fixed overnight. But it needs to be continually pointed out to NIH officialdom and credulous science industry reporters what is going on and what the results of certain policy tacks that purport to address the funding disparity will actually accomplish.
*It seems useful to observe that the National Eye Institute was reported to have the highest grant success rates in Lauer’s analysis. In Table 1 of the eLife paper the Award Rate was listed as 15.5%, the next closest IC was GM at 12.9%. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research was the IC in the “of disproportionate interest to AAB investigators” with the highest Award Rate at 10.9%. (No, I don’t understand how or why the Award Rates changed from the initial blog version where Figure 2 reported the NEI Award Rate as something around 26%.)
- U54HG009826 EYES OF AFRICA : THE GENETICS OF BLINDNESS was awarded at the University of Ibadan with Adeyinka O. Ashaye, a Black woman, as PI.
- R01 EY023704 xADAGES III: Contribution of genotype to glaucoma phenotype in African Americans has two PIs that appear to be white men.
- The PI of R01EY011008 and R01 EY019869 does not appear to be Black.
- The PI of R01 EY021818 might be?
- The PI of P30 EY022589 PI does not appear to be Black.
- The PI of P30 EY025585 does not appear to be Black.
- The PD of P30 EY011373 does not appear to be Black.