All other things not being equal

According to a study released by the National Institutes of Health (U.S.) there is:

a 10 percentage point gap between black and white researchers in winning the most common type of NIH grant — even though all held doctorate degrees and had similar research experience. Between 2000 and 2006, about 27 per cent of white applicants won funding compared with about 17 per cent of blacks. [Black scientists less likely than whites to win research funds]

These results hold true even after most variables are held constant (academic qualification and research experience).

What cannot be held constant is the crucial factor of mentoring. Writing research grants is a skill. My own personal experience of applying for a fellowship (and being turned down) is that my own mentor had explained the process to me as one in which you write the initial application in order to receive feedback on it. Armed with those criticisms you reapply.

I applied and did not receive funding. My mentor and I worked over the application. I reapplied and did receive funding.

Mentors are not only crucial in training their students in the process of applying for and securing fellowships and grants they are also play a vital role in access to all resources. For example, access to lab time can be extremely competitive and the decision as to which aspiring doctoral candidate gets the best lab times and the best access to departmental funds and resources is usually determined by \”who has their back.\” Mentors who know how to write grant proposals are vital to the process but data gathering usually requires access to physical resources that not all mentors can deliver.

As the authors of the study put it:

Small differences in access to research resources and mentoring during training or at the beginning of a career may accumulate to become large between-group differences.[Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Award]

Without strong mentoring minority graduate students, research fellows and junior faculty are disadvantaged in receiving funding and lab access. At the same time the very people to whom they look for mentoring have to weigh the time required to do mentoring with the impact it will have on their own careers

The time constraints imposed by serving on minority recruitment committees and mentoring students often leaves precious little time for minority scientists to do their own research. “As an underrepresented minority, you want to give back,” he says. “But as one minority scientist told me once, ‘You do no one, especially other minorities, any good if you don\’t get tenure.’” [A Minority Viewpoint]

And so it goes. You cannot simply wave away centuries (and sometimes millennia) of unequal access to resources with a wand and say \”so, it is all better now.\” If we do not make an affirmative effort to offset the incremental disadvantages we are merely allow the effects of previous inequities to ripple through the system.


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