University of Michigan biomedical engineering professor Omolola Eniola-Adefeso, along with 19 other women in biomedical engineering across the country, published a paper last month calling for an end to racial disparity in funding by the National Institute of Health.
According to the paper, the probability of Black principal investigators receiving a research award was about 55% of the probability of white principal investigators receiving one in 2000-2006. In 2014-2016, this number remained the same.
“We, as scientists and engineers, wrote editorials and promised to do better,” the paper reads. “Yet, over a decade later, this gap persists.”
According to Eniola-Adefeso, equitable research grants from the NIH are necessary for ensuring diversity in biomedical engineering research and enabling researchers to acquire promotions and tenured positions. She told The Michigan Daily funding diverse research teams motivates students from all backgrounds to pursue research.
“We recognize that part of the problem is that (NIH funded researchers), as a body, are not diverse,” Eniola-Adefeso said. “We are primarily responsible for training the U.S. workforce, and if we are not training a diverse workforce, we are leaving people out from accessing high-paying jobs.”
The paper highlighted several ways funding agencies could work towards eliminating disparities in grants awarded. These include officially acknowledging the prevalence of racism in academia and committing to work towards its expulsion, instituting policies that will enable equitable funding for Black researchers and prioritizing diverse research teams for funding.
Numerous studies cited in the paper show diverse research teams generate the most creative and impactful ideas and solutions. Eniola-Adefeso said the NIH should create a diversity score that measures the diversity of research teams and enables teams with higher scores to be prioritized for funding, encouraging diversification and innovation.
“Diversity of people, diversity of background, diversity of life experiences — if those are important in getting innovative solutions, then why is it that the NIH grant scoring process does not give points to the diversity of the research team?” Eniola-Adefeso said.
Korie Grayson, an engineering postdoctoral fellow in Eniola-Adefeso’s lab, said it is essential to identify the core issues in the research funding process to ensure it can be successfully eliminated, as the paper does.
Grayson said the disparity in research funding is unsurprising since women of color pursuing research have to combat unwelcome environments and numerous gender and racial biases and stereotypes while working in the field.
“Being half as likely to be funded as your white counterpart who is basically on the same level as you is discouraging,” Grayson said. “It is discouraging but it is not surprising, which is the sad part. In order to have more young scientists of color, specifically Black women, there has to be a change.”
The Biomedical Engineering Society, a student organization promoting networking and research panels in the biomedical engineering field at the University, agreed with the paper’s findings. In an email to The Daily, Engineering senior Likitha Nimmagadda, president of the Biomedical Engineering Society, emphasized the organization’s support for the need to ensure equitable research grants awarded by the NIH.
“The BMES chapter at U of M fully supports and agrees with the sentiments expressed by the authors of the ‘Fund Black scientists’ commentary published in Cell,” Nimmagadda wrote. “Black scientists must be funded at the same rate as white scientists and improving this racial funding disparity must be prioritized. In order to improve equity in funding received by researchers, we must ‘see color’.”
Eniola-Adefeso also said the conception of the paper was spurred by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed on May 25 by police. She said the murder prompted biomedical engineering faculty members to discuss and work to combat racial inequities existing in the research field.
“We can no longer allow this to go under the radar,” Eniola-Adefeso said. “We have a voice as faculty and we felt like this was a time to reengage the NIH in this conversation.”
Daily Staff Reporter Navya Gupta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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