Posted on April 24, 2023

Scientists With Multiple NIH Grants Are Overwhelmingly Male and White

Linda Nordling, Nature, April 14, 2023

More and more grants from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) are being concentrated in the hands of a small group of ‘super investigators’— a trend that could hamper efforts to increase the ethnic and gender diversity of biomedical research, a study finds.

The study1 analysed the gender and ethnic profiles of researchers holding three or more NIH grants at the same time. Between 1991 and 2020, such investigators, whom the study dubs ‘super principal investigators’, or ‘super-PIs’, tripled as a proportion of total NIH investigators, from 3.7% to 11.3%, while the percentage of NIH funding allocated to them more than doubled, from 13% to 28%.

But this group of super-PIs has a diversity problem. Black or female investigators were less likely to be super-PIs than were white men, and Black women fared the worst: in 2020, 12 Black women were super-PIs, compared with 1,839 white men.

Career stage and level of highest qualification did not play a part. “The gender, racial and ethnic disparity that we saw exists at every stage,” says Mytien Nguyen, an immunobiologist at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, and corresponding author on the super-PIs study. At the early-career level, where historical bias could be expected to be less influential, Black female scientists were still the least likely to be super-PIs.

The lack of diversity among this growing group of elite NIH investigators poses “a substantial threat” to biomedical research in the United States, given the “well-documented benefits” of diverse science teams, write the study authors.

Their findings probably have “multifactorial” causes, they say, but differences in access to mentorship and patterns of grant submission could play a part. {snip}

Biases in grant assessment could also help to explain the disparities among super-PIs, the authors write. This is a hunch echoed by Shirley Malcolm, who directs SEA Change, a diversity, equity and inclusion initiative run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, based in Washington DC. While reviewing grants for the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the early 1990s, Malcolm says, she encountered assumptions about who was capable of doing what that are “rooted in a system of white advantage”.

Malcolm highlights a study2 of NSF grantmaking, published last year, that found that external reviewers on average scored white applicants more highly than they scored applicants from other ethnic groups. {snip}


“Research has shown that diversity is required for innovation. Any award, recognition, grant or faculty promotion should employ this inclusive definition of excellence and evaluate diversity as a core component of excellence,” Nguyen says. “Excellence is the same as diversity, not the opposite.”