Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and the R01 Thirst Trap

As I spend the day reflecting, I have read this newly released article from my colleagues Michael Taffe and Nicholas Gilpin at eLife about 10 times. Each time I read it, I discover something else that tickles my brain and provokes my thoughts. Do yourself a favor and go read Equity, Diversity and Inclusion: Racial inequity in grant funding from the US National Institutes of Health. They provide an outstanding overview of disparities in NIH funding, particularly as they impact Black applicants, and some ideas to move the field forward.

There’s one thought I can’t get out of my head.

There is no doubt that the NIH R01 is the status symbol of academia. The authors call it “career currency” in their article. If you’ve ever been on a search committee or tenure committee someone always asks, “Do they have an R01 yet?” Want to move universities? You’re gonna need an R01. Even if someone has, for example, $1M from the American Heart Association versus $1M in an R01, the R01 is seen as the bigger achievement. It could be that this is because the R01 brings in more indirect funds to the university. Indirects are the additional money paid to an institution to administer the grant. Sometimes they are called “overhead” because these indirects are supposed to keep the roof over your head. But, the American Heart allows only 10% of the value of the grant to be paid as indirect costs. That’s $100,000 on a $1M grant. Harvard Medical School’s indirect cost rate for federal dollars, by comparison, is 69.5%. This means that the university receives $695,000 to administer the $1M NIH grant. The outcome is the same for your lab, but it makes a $500,000 difference to the university.

If you’re the University of Bridgerton, it’s like the difference between landing the Duke of Hastings and Lord Berbrooke.

Do not let the Duke of Hastings hold his indirects against you.

Now, how does this relate to issues of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion? While some agencies have tried to make meaningful strides in the DEI space, no money smells as sweet to a university as the NIH’s money. As Taffe and Gilpin point out in their editorial, there are serious inequities in R01 funding rates. Here’s the scenario that is running rampant through my head on this day of reflection:

Let’s say you start your lab at a particular university. You have decent success, even bringing in an amount in direct costs that is equal to an R01. You write good papers and train good students. But, you don’t have an R01 and the chips are stacked against you. You realize, after spending a little time there, that the environment is not supportive. It may be discriminatory, or even overtly hostile. Still, want to escape your university to a potentially less hostile environment that is of equal academic status? The magical ticket to ride that train is an R01.

This means you either stay in the hostile environment (while enduring the emotional turmoil), you stay in the hostile environment and beg for money from an agency with a long track record of discriminating against you so that you move to another institutuion (while bearing the emotional cost), or…

The pipeline leaks

…you leave academic while bearing the emotional cost. I have seen all three scenarios play out over the past year. They all suck.

We know that the NIH system is discriminatory. Why are we so wedded to it as the index of academic success?

In previous years, we’ve had a vigorous debate about the value of the GRE and whether it contributes to inequities in science. It’s time to have that same question about the R01. At the basic level of rigor and substance, is the R01 any more prestigious to a university than any other funding award? Are reviews from other agencies and foundations any less rigorous? Of course not. In some ways, the societal impact of a foundation award is larger. Color me cynical, the R01 is more prestigious to the university because it comes with a bigger wad of cash for them.

It’s time to rethink the indirect rate and the power it gives the NIH over the careers of underrepresented faculty.

**Featured image source

Isis the Scientist

Professor, physiologist, mother of the iKids, stepmom to the Strange Tots, Strange’s wife, Iowan, bikes, shoes, debt-free zealot, post-stomach. Old crone of a blogger who just never learns. Not even close to affiliated with my employer.

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