How the Science World Tells Black Kids 'Do Not Enter'

National initiatives seek to increase the number of minorities in science, but racial discrimination in academia is hurting the cause.

Back in 2009, President Obama launched his "Educate to Innovate" program, tasked with increasing the number of students pursuing science, technology, engineering and math careers. And with students of color set to make up the majority in American schools by 2050, efforts focused on prepping them to become the next generation of scientists are gaining momentum. But the racial discrimination and a lack of opportunity for minorities working in science academia probably isn't helping the cause.

A new study released on Thursday from Science magazine found that black academics applying for biomedical research grants from the National Institutes of Health are significantly less likely to receive funding than their white peers. One-quarter of white researchers' proposals are accepted for funding, while black scientists only get the money they need 15 percent of the time.

This kind of inequality isn't exactly encouraging for black college students who are deciding whether they want to pursue science-related graduate studies in the hopes of conducting potentially groundbreaking science research. After all, students aren't blind. They can see how hard it is for the black academics they interact with. Who could blame them if they pick a field with less racial discrimination?

Raynard Kington, president of Grinnell College and a former deputy director of the NIH told NPR that the depth of the problem likely means that grants aren't being awarded solely based on merit. He believes review teams "may be picking up subtle clues" from the applications. If someone with a culturally black-sounding name, or someone on the faculty at a historically black university applies, it's pretty easy "to infer race," he says.

Francis Collins, the NIH director, says the discrepancy is "something that we are deeply troubled about and are determined to do something about." He wants to recruit more scientists to serve on the grant application evaluation committees and expand mentoring programs for students. Given the changing demographics of the nation, if the NIH and other scientific organizations don't step up their game, we're only hurting our long-term scientific competitiveness.

photo via Wikimedia Commons