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Study indicates racial bias in NSF grant funding

August 25, 2022
By: Conor Gowder

A group of seven researchers analyzed upwards of one million National Science Foundation (NSF) proposals over a 23-year period (1996-2019) and found patterns of racialized disparities where white principal investigators (PIs) were consistently funded at higher rates (8+ percent) than most non-white PIs. The preprint study (not peer reviewed) states that similar patterns can be observed in other agencies and are consistent with other past studies as well. The question of whether systemic racism is at play in the NSF peer review and award selection process is even more pronounced when one considers more specific demographics such as Black and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander PIs.

The study found that the relative funding rates for white scientists from 1999 to 2019 were greater than 8 percent higher than the average, while those for Black, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islanders, or Asian scientists could be found approximately 8, 11, and 21 percent below the average respectively.

Over the 21-year period, white PIs experienced a substantial downward trend in their proportional share of all proposals (approximately 78 percent to 50 percent) and awards (approximately 80 percent to 56 percent), while Asian PIs saw the greatest rise in share of both proposals (approximately 14 percent to 23 percent) and awards (approximately 11 percent to 18 percent). The rest of the studied demographics (Hispanic/Latino, Black/AA, AI/AN, NH/PI, and Multiracial) either stayed approximately the same (AI/AN) or saw an increase of no more than around 2 percent.

However, there is a curveball in all of this; PIs of “Unknown” race and ethnicity had an increased share from approximately 4 percent to about 20 percent for their proportional shares of both proposals and awards. Making up nearly 20 percent of all proposals and awards, “Unknown” PIs, those who do not report their demographic information, may change the findings of the study if identified.

What steps are NSF and other similar agencies taking to ensure this racial disparity formed gap is closing?

NSF’s recently published 2022-2026 Strategic Plan underscores the agency’s core values of diversity and inclusion through its strategic goals, calling its first goal, “Empower.” Its aim is to “Empower STEM talent to fully participate in science and engineering” through the promotion of inclusion in the STEM workforce and research community, expansion of access to STEM learning and training, and increase in STEM literacy. NSF also has a variety of DEI-based programs such as ADVANCE and NSF INCLUDES.

NIH has two Inclusion Policies meant to ensure access to funding for researchers of any age, gender, race, and ethnicity. The first, focused on women and minorities, was last updated in 2017, but has a variety of resources ranging from podcasts to reports that examine related materials such as past studies and inclusion plans. The second Inclusion Policy is dedicated to age and was similarly last updated in 2017, also maintaining a comparable set of resources.

Similarly, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has an emphasis on DEI, especially evident in the SBIR/STTR programs. The DOE has updated information on under-represented groups’ makeup of total award rates by phase, as well as a detailed methodology of how each group is defined, in addition to “Phase 0” assistance and their “Diversity Supplement” program. More information can be found here.

nsf, grants, funding