Representatives from a network of women deans, chairs and distinguished faculty in biomedical engineering — including two from Washington University in St. Louis — are calling upon the National Institutes of Health and other funding agencies to address disparities in allocating support to Black researchers.

The group made the call to action in the Jan. 26, 2021, issue of the journal Cell.

In examining the racial inequities and injustices that prevent Black faculty from equitably contributing to science and achieving their full potential, insufficient federal funding for research by Black scientists rose to the top as a key issue.

“This has to be addressed immediately,” said Princess Imoukhuede, associate professor of biomedical engineering at Washington University’s McKelvey School of Engineering.

Imoukhuede recalled reading more than a decade ago about racial disparities in federal funding. “I had a lot of trust in the system that, with this data, they would do something.”

The data, however, continue to paint a picture of inequity.

According to studies of National Institutes of Health research funding allocations, Black applicant award rates have stood at about 55 percent of that of white principal investigators of similar academic achievement. Despite internal reviews of the reasons behind this disparity, and promises to do better, the funding gap continues.

The Cell paper authors, which also include Washington University’s Lori Setton, department chair and the Lucy & Stanley Lopata Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering, make recommendations on how research funding disparities can be eliminated, including:

  • Explicitly state that racism persists in the United States research enterprise and that it must be expelled;
  • Develop federal funding institute policies to immediately achieve racial funding equity;
  • Incorporate diversity into research proposal scoring criteria, prioritize research teams that exemplify diversity and 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 act to bring about social justice. They look also to the private sector, such as foundations, professional societies, philanthropists as well as to industrial leaders whose companies depend on scientific innovation, to help offset racial disparities in research funding.

Original news release is available on the University of Washington website.

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