Little race or gender bias in an experiment of initial review of NIH R01 grant proposals

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Abstract

Many granting agencies allow reviewers to know the identity of a proposal’s principal investigator (PI), which opens the possibility that reviewers discriminate on the basis of PI race and gender. We investigated this experimentally with 48 NIH R01 grant proposals, representing a broad range of NIH-funded science. We modified PI names to create separate white male, white female, black male and black female versions of each proposal, and 412 scientists each submitted initial reviews for 3 proposals. We find little to no race or gender bias in initial R01 evaluations, and additionally find that any bias that might have been present must be negligible in size. This conclusion was robust to a wide array of statistical model specifications. Pragmatically, important bias may be present in other aspects of the granting process, but our evidence suggests that it is not present in the initial round of R01 reviews.

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Fig. 1: Estimated differences between the Overall Impact scores given to proposals with white male PIs and each of white female, black male and black female PIs.
Fig. 2: Sensitivity of our results to alternative analytic models.
Fig. 3: The relative rate of word use in the written critiques given to white male PIs and each of white female, black male and black female PIs.

Code availability

All code used in this paper can be accessed at our project page at https://osf.io/c5csm/

Data availability

Our data and materials have been deposited at https://osf.io/uy7vq/, which also includes our preregistered protocol. The modified grant proposals have not been deposited for confidentiality reasons. Modified grant proposals can be obtained by contacting the corresponding authors, who will seek permission to share these materials from the research teams that prepared the proposals.

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Acknowledgements

We acknowledge E. Brandt, K. Lange, D. (Dianne) Lee, J. Marsh, V. Martinez, C. Mitamura, N. Mohan, Y. Lee, C. Henriques, R. Grzenia, K. Scott, S. Staples, D. Statz and P. Rienke for their help in conducting this research. We also acknowledge M. Carnes, C. Ford, A. Kaatz and J. Raclaw for their help in the design of the research. Finally, we acknowledge J. Westfall for his helpful comments on our analyses and J. Fox for his advice on the car package. This research was supported by NIH grant 5R01GM111002-02 to P.G.D. Part of this research was conducted using technical resources provided by the Open Science Grid25,26, which is supported by the National Science Foundation award 1148698 and the US Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

P.G.D. conceived the research. All authors designed the research. P.S.F. and W.T.L.C. supervised the preparation of materials and data collection. P.S.F. prepared the preregistration. All authors revised the preregistration. P.S.F. and M.B. analysed the data. P.S.F. wrote the first draft of the manuscript. All authors revised the paper.

Correspondence to Patrick S. Forscher or Patricia G. Devine.

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Supplementary Tables 1–4 and Supplementary Figures 1–6

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Forscher, P.S., Cox, W.T.L., Brauer, M. et al. Little race or gender bias in an experiment of initial review of NIH R01 grant proposals. Nat Hum Behav 3, 257–264 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41562-018-0517-y

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