An unusual experiment to test whether an applicant’s apparent race or gender influence how their grant proposal is scored has found no evidence of bias.
The study, which involved re-evaluating proposals already funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, after the applicants’ names had been altered, is part of an ongoing effort by NIH officials to detect bias in their vaunted peer-review process. Some scientists who have read the NIH-funded study, described in a preprint posted online on 25 May, object to what they say is its implication that bias doesn’t exist. But the authors say they are making no such claim.
“I’ve made a career out of studying bias and how to overcome it. I know the problem to be real. But here in this particular context, it may not be the place where the bias shows itself,” says psychologist Patricia Devine of the University of Wisconsin (UW) in Madison, who led the study.
The impetus for the project was an explosive 2011 study led by economist Donna Ginther of The University of Kansas in Lawrence. It found that black applicants have a success rate 10% lower than whites in winning NIH research grants even after accounting for an applicant’s institution and research record. NIH responded to the disturbing finding by pouring money into programs such as a mentoring network for minority researchers and funding research on unconscious racial bias during grant review, including Devine’s study.
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