NIH Must End Discriminatory Funding Practices Against HBCUs

A study released last week by researchers from the University of Kansas revealed that African-American researchers are more than 30 percent less likely to receive funding for projects from the National Institutes of Health than their white, Hispanic and Asian counterparts. NIH Director Francis Collins called the revelation “deeply troubling,” and vowed “..the problem has been there all along. Now we know about it and have to do something.”

But despite Collins’ “now we know” claims, he and NIH administration have long been made aware of this issue by members of the HBCU leadership community, most notably, by Hampton University President Dr. William Harvey. In a series of communications dating back to 2010, Harvey sounded the alarm for NIH’s failure to act upon the grave warnings and instances of outright discrimination against HBCUs, the long-proven institutions most equipped and qualified to address the disparity of funding going to black researchers to address minority health crises.

In a letter to Collins in December 2010, Dr. Harvey responds to a study revealing that less than one percent of all NIH grants allocated to institutions of higher education reached historically black colleges and universities from 2007-2009. Citing data collected from the White House Initiative on HBCUs, black colleges received a maximum of .83 percent funding during the period; a stark contrast to maintained and slight increases in allocations going to HBCUs for agricultural and science & technology research and inclusion initiatives from other federal agencies.

In that same letter, Dr. Harvey outlines the experiences of an HU researcher affected by NIH’s discriminatory practices.

“To help illustrate my point, I provided the following specific example. There is a minority researcher on Hampton University’s biology faculty with expertise in cancer research. He submitted a proposal to the National Cancer Institute’s Comprehensive Minority Biomedical Branch Center to Reduce Cancer Disparities, but did not receive funding – even though the proposal received a fundable score of 30. This was the second training grant within one year that he had submitted to the NIH that received scores of 36 and 30, respectively.”

“Both of the proposals were graded as ‘Excellent’ and within the fundable range, but neither was funded. At this juncture, the Hampton University researcher is of the opinion that there is no point in attempting to train minority students in cancer research when their own mentor continually applies for NIH funding, receives fundable scores, but does not secure the funding. He asked, ‘Why train researchers when the prospect of getting funded is basically nil?’”

Hampton University boasts a robust collection of research centers aimed at addressing health issues and disparities for African-Americans. It joins members of the NIH Research in Minority Institutions program, Clark Atlanta UniversityFlorida A&M University, Howard University,Jackson State UniversityMeharry Medical College, Morehouse School of Medicine, Morgan State UniversitySpelman CollegeTuskegee University and Xavier University of Louisiana, as the premier research hubs designed to resolve historical funding disparities for people of color.

In spite of these hubs, which NIH identifies as capable institutions ready to serve the common interest of a healthier society, the implicit message in this report screams that health research interests of black people do not match those of other ethnic groups.

The hope is that NIH can resolve this disparity with complete autonomy, with a full and public acknowledgement, apology and meeting with HBCU administrators to develop the plan that insures equitable funding for critical research goals at HBCUs and other minority serving institutions. As the roots of inequity and unequal funding run deep between the NIH and HBCUs, a discussion on increasing the funding allocation for its national center on minority health may be in short order, with special emphasis on increasing partnerships with HBCUs.

The biggest advocate for these partnerships should be the White House Board of Advisors on HBCUs, of which Dr. Harvey is chair.  His letter is a national call for HBCUs presidents to aggressively pursue corrective measures against NIH discrimination, and any partnership from the federal level brings with it media and mobilization opportunities to ensure long term solutions against this heinous culture.

Francis Collins and NIH have a problem with racism that needs a swift and immediate antidote. HBCUs, as they’ve always been for better or worse, stand ready to be the closest ally in the fight for racial equality and access.

But for the benefit of health outcomes for black communities, the quiet phase of advocacy and acceptance is soon drawing to a weak and conclusive close.

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