New Study Shows a Persistent Racial Gap in Funding of National Science Foundation Grants

A new study by researchers at several universities in the United States and abroad finds that the National Science Foundation consistently awards grants to White researchers at a much higher rate than it does to other groups.

Overall, the study examines more than 1 million proposals reviewed by the National Science Foundation from 1996 to 2019. In any given year, the NSF funded 22 percent to 34 percent of all proposals it receives, the study found. But proposals by White applicants were consistently funded by several percentage points above that rate, and the disparity increased steadily through the years in the analysis. In contrast, funding rates for Asian, Black and African American, and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander applicants have been consistently below the overall average.

The authors report that the data for 2019 shows that the National Science Foundation funded a total of 11,243 grants. It approved:

  • 31.3 percent of proposals by White applicants.
  • 29.0 percent of proposals by Hispanic or Latino applicants.
  • 26.5 percent of proposals by Black applicants.
  • 22.4 percent of proposals by Asian applicants.

The disparities were even larger when the authors considered only the NSF’s research grants — excluding other types of awards, for education and training, for example. In 2013 and 2014, research proposals by White applicants were funded at 1.7 and 1.8 times the rate of those by Black applicants.

In the paper, the researchers write that those inequities have a snowball effect on academic careers, because the funding and prestige bestowed by grant awards are essential for advancing professionally, building support networks and retaining research staff — and, researchers who earn grants from the NSF tend to have more success with their next grant proposals.

“We can’t hope to diversify the scientific community if this continues,” said Christine Yifeng Chen, a researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, an early-career fellow at the Center for Diverse Leadership in Science at the University of California, Los Angles, and the lead author of the paper. “These funding patterns have conferred a cumulative advantage on White scientists while disadvantaging others.”

The study, “Meta-Research: Systemic Racial Disparities in Funding Rates at the National Science Foundation,” was published on the website eLife. It may be accessed here.

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