U.S. President Barack Obama and Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius
U.S. President Barack Obama and Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius visit Dr. Francis Collins, chief director of National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland during a tour. REUTERS

A study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), published in the journal Science, found a ten percentage point difference in the number of grants awarded to black researchers compared with white researchers with similar credentials.

This situation is not acceptable. The data is deeply troubling, Dr. Francis Collins, chief director of NIH, told reporters on a conference call. The problem has been there all along. Now we know about it and have to do something, he added.

Blacks make up 10.2 percent of the U.S. population, but only 1.2 percent of the principal investigators of biomedical research studies are black, according to the study.

Collins said his concerns over the issue and evidence prompted NIH, which is the largest source of funding for medical research in the world, to take a deeper look into the grant system, where roughly 3,600 are awarded on average each year.

It indicates that we have not only failed to recruit the best and brightest minds from all of the groups we need to be coming to us, but for those who have joined us, he remarked. ...There is inequity in their ability to achieve funding from the NIH, which in many instances is essential to academic success in biomedical research.

Researchers studied success rates of applicants of different races with similar research records and affiliations at being awarded a new NIH research project grant, as USA Today reports.

The study, led by Donna Ginther, an economics professor at the University of Kansas, looked at 83,188 applications of new grants for principal investigator, or the head of a laboratory, from 40,069 researchers from 2000 to 2006, and discovered a 13 percentage point gap in the success rates between black and white applicants.

These data suggest we are failing even the ones who do make it, Collins said.

With help from NIH, the raw data also showed a four percentage point gap in the success rates of white over Asian applicants, while there were no apparent differences in success rates among Hispanic and white applicants.

Ginther and her team spent more than two years looking for possible explanations for the differences.

The differences in success rates for Asian and Hispanic grant applicants, who authored 21 percent of the applications, disappeared when they looked only at applications from U.S. residents, noting that language barriers may play a role.

According to the study, Asian and Hispanic applicants had these similar success rates, while white grant applicants had a success rate of 29 percent and blacks about 17 percent of their grants funded.

Among black applicants, differences in education, country of origin, training, employer characteristics, previous research awards, and publication record accounted for three percentage points of the difference, but that still left a ten percentage point spread.

Study authors concluded that suggests that for every 100 applications from white applicants, 30 percent were funded, but among every 100 applications from blacks, only 20 percent were funded.

Watch Prof. Donna Ginther Speak on the Effects of a Large Racial Gap for Grants: