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Thursday, August 25, 2011
Racial Discrimination in Science
I was a little disappointed when I read the <A HREF=http://www.economist.com/node/21526320>Economist Magazine article</A> on <A HREF=http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/summary/333/6045/1015>Dr Donna Ginther's report</A> on racial discrimination. At first I was disappointed in our academic and science community for allowing racism to infect the ivory tower. But as I read deeper, the fault for snap-judgment and prejudice may actually lie with the authors of the study and the various news articles surrounding it. Dr Ginther reported results that were not complete, in my mind. And the authors of news reports certainly didn't do their due diligence on those results. I don't see any mention of normalization of the data for external factors like the education level, reputation, socio-economic status, and historical research performance of the applicants and applications that were the subject of the study. Fortunately The Economist did point out that the NIH is pursing a less biased and more scientific experiment to provide some real backing to the initial results of Dr. Girther. They aren't waiting around for irrefutable experimental evidence before implementing corrective action. The NIH is already tweaking the proposal review process and panel selection.
It's the cronyism and cliquishness of the whole research grant process that should be targeted. That sort of discrimination (which includes an element of racism in it) is unquestionably a part of the process and should be fixed. And it's not just at the NIH. Other large research funding sources, like DARPA and the NSF, are also subject to human social biases, including racism. Fixing the problem will not only help the ivory towers achieve a more diverse and multi-color appearance, but the quality of the research those institutions support should be much improved as well. I look forward to the scientific breakthroughs that will come from mavericks on the fringes of the science community that will now be able to test their ideas with grant funding from NIH and other national institutions. Maybe the US academic community can regain our prominence in the world community while improving our moral standing as well.