Black Scholars Are Underrepresented Among “Super Principal Investigators” on NIH Grants

A new study, led by Mytien Nguyen, an MD/Ph.D. student at Yale School of Medicine, examined the racial makeup of “super principal investigators.” These researchers received three or more concurrent grants from the National Institutes of Health.

The study found that in 2020 Blacks were just 1.8 percent of all principal investigators on NIH grant projects. This is triple the percentage from 1991 when Blacks were 0.5 percent of all principal investigators. But this slow rate of progress means that racial equality is a long way off.

Blacks were significantly underrepresented among SPIs. In 2020, just 1 percent of all Black principal investigators were super principal investigators. For Whites, 4.1 percent of all principal investigators were super principal investigators. Even after adjusting for career stage and degree, Black PIs were significantly less likely to have SPI status compared with White PIs. Black women were most disparately underrepresented among SPIs, with White men PIs being more than three-fold more likely to be an SPI compared with Black women.

In their conclusion, the authors state that “while the cause of the gender, ethnic, and racial gap in SPI status reported in this study is likely multifactorial, disparities in mentorship available to Black faculty may contribute to this gap. Mentorship not only guides early career faculty on a path to success but also exposes faculty to a network of peers that will facilitate collaborations and support. Black scientists are less likely than White scientists to be mentored by high-impact senior mentors, and therefore less likely to acquire the scientific network, tacit knowledge, and sponsorship that are inherently required for securing grants. Furthermore, even when mentored by senior faculty, racism may affect the relationship that Black faculty have with their mentors, resulting in negative mentoring that harms faculty of color.”

The full study, “Gender, Racial, and Ethnic and Inequities in Receipt of Multiple National Institutes of Health Research Project Grants,” was published on JAMA Open Network. It may be accessed here.

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