Image courtesy of Yale School of Medicine.
Being a researcher is like being on Shark Tank. Except the shark has seven times Mark Cuban’s net worth and belongs to the government.
With thirty-three billion dollars to invest in research, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) can afford to dream big. However, even its pot of money gets drained quickly. The problem is that there are a million theories on how to save more lives. And whatever hodgepodge of hypotheses the NIH picks to fund will likely be the future of medicine.
That thirty-three-billion-dollar check ultimately gets split 58,368 different ways across the U.S. And if you’re wondering who’s enjoying that funding, just know it’s less likely to be Black and women scientists, according to a recent JAMA Network Open study. “It’s a bit discouraging,” said Mytien Nguyen, an MD-PhD candidate at the Yale School of Medicine and first author of the study. “Because you want to succeed and be able to do the things that you want to do for your community.”
Even research has its monopolists—sort of. There’s an elite class of scientists called “super PIs,” who each receive three or more NIH grants. That status is unequally distributed across gender, ethnic, and racial groups. Compared to principal investigators (PIs) who are white and male, Black women PIs were seventy-one percent less likely to be super PIs, the study found. Nguyen’s team also found that, similar to Black women PIs, Black PIs and women PIs were respectively forty percent and thirty-four percent less likely to be super PIs than white men.
Meanwhile, the researchers found that the percentage of super PIs tripled from 1991 to 2020, rising from 3.7 percent to 11.3 percent. “It means that whenever there’s a budget increase, most of the time it’s going to white male PIs rather than being distributed equally,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen added that there are currently only twelve Black super PIs in the country—and that underrepresentation at the top trickles down. It’s difficult for minority trainees to find mentors with similar backgrounds and struggles. The few that exist are overwhelmed and overworked in terms of mentoring, Nguyen added.
Nguyen grew up in a low-income, immigrant household. Neither of her parents, who are Vietnamese and Black, finished high school. As Nguyen rose through academia, she realized there was a hidden curriculum to success, one to which she lacked access. That’s why she’s passionate about improving diversity in science, starting with funding.
Academic grants fund your trainees and research agenda, Nguyen explained. They boost your chances of getting promotions. Plus, the more money you have, the riskier and more high impact of a project you can pursue. She added that diversity in PIs ensures research serves a diverse population. Nguyen pointed to clinical trials, which traditionally fail to represent people from marginalized backgrounds.
“It’s important to have researchers representing these underserved communities so that they’re asking the questions that are relevant,” Nguyen said. “So that it’s a more equitable transplant from the bench to the bedside.”