Three studies probe NIH R&D representation, conflicts of interest

October 17, 2019

In recent weeks, three separate reviews of R&D grants and awards at NIH have shed new light on issues of minority and women representation among researchers and on potential conflicts of interest by investigators. NIH has been publicly working to address concerns about representation and trustworthiness among its investigators. While the results from these studies show that the agency has more work to do, the availability of this information speaks favorably to NIH's transparent approach to these conversations. 

  • A study in Science Advances of 157,000 research proposals from 2011-2015 found that topic choice accounts for 21 percent of the funding disparity between black and white applicants. Topics proposed by black scientists were more likely to address community interventions, health disparities and other topics that appear to be of less interest to NIH reviewers.
  • Science reported on gender bias in the Early Independence Award, which has seen a lower share of female winners than applicants or finalists in eight of the last nine years. NIH has already adjusted the 2020 invitation to target a broader array of scientists.
  • An NIH inspector general audit for 2018 found that about 3 percent of 55,600 grants disclosed a conflict of interest.  There is some disagreement about whether this proportion is reasonable — NIH employs a definition of conflict narrowly tied to influence over the specific research in question, or whether the low rate indicates potential nondisclosures, as other analyses have found significantly higher rates of conflicts for biomedical research.
nih, r&d