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Monday, September 20, 2021

UF professor and peers call for more funding for Black researchers

A recent publication by Professor Josephine Allen and her peers addresses the racial research funding disparity and calls for change

Graphic of Black researchers
Graphic of Black researchers

A group of UF researchers have called upon the National Institutes of Health and other funding agencies to address racial disparities in providing support to Black researchers. 

On Jan. 26, UF Professor Josephine Allen and 18 representatives from a network of women deans, chairs and distinguished faculty in biomedical engineering across the United States published a paper calling upon the agencies to equalize funding for Black scientists. The group spent several months writing the paper and getting it reviewed before publishing it in Cell, a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Allen, a Black researcher of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, reviewed reports  from the past 10 years about the funding gap between Black and white faculty. One 2011 report found a 55% gap in funding rates between 2000 to 2006. A decade later, another report assessed the rates and found the funding gap was the same. 

“When we reflected on those papers and reports, we decided it was time for a call to action, so we set out to share our thoughts on strategies to address the funding disparity,” Allen said. “The timing felt right to add our voice.” 

In the paper, Allen and her colleagues recommend several ways to eliminate research funding disparities. They said funding agencies should explicitly state that racism persists in the U.S. research enterprise and must be expelled. Another suggestion is to train funding agency leadership, staff, grant reviewers and recipients to recognize and stop racism. 

“Any one of these things could have a positive impact,” Allen said. “But collectively, if we could get these kinds of things done, we think it would address the disparity in funding.”

Without adequate research funding, Black scientists can become discouraged and quit the profession, according to the paper – leaving fewer Black researchers to serve as role models and mentors for the next generation.

Fewer Black scientists also means many vital research questions are not being asked because the perspectives, creativity and knowledge of a diverse population of scientists are not being tapped. 

“There’s a lot of health disparities that exist in different populations,” Allen said. “So having people that can represent those populations, it matters. It just strengthens the science.”

The authors also suggested ways scientists, universities, colleges and institutes can act to bring about social justice – such as recognizing how they might unintentionally contribute to systemic racism in their academic roles. Academia, they noted, must move forward from statements of solidarity to transformative organizational changes.

Universities such as UF are helping faculty and students of color by doing implicit bias training and implementing diversity and inclusion initiatives to ensure their success, Allen said. 

“Because of these types of initiatives, aspiring Black researchers should feel hopeful that the field is evolving and change is happening,” Allen said. “And with any hope, that will translate to fairer funding and support.”

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University of Michigan professor Omolola Eniola-Adefeso, a Black researcher and co-author of the paper, said more funding for Black researchers would help them work on projects they’re passionate about. Projects in biomedicine are especially important, she said, because they study diseases that disproportionately impact Black communities.

“Having access to those research dollars allows us to push innovation in those areas, which then allows the Black population to also benefit from biomedical research funded by tax-payer dollars,” Eniola-Adefeso said.

If equally qualified Black researchers are funded at the same rate as white ones, they won’t have to spend twice the time writing research proposals. This will give them more time to mentor Black students, leading to more Black students in research careers, Eniola-Adefeso said. 

Like Allen, Eniola-Adefeso feels diversity in research is essential.

“For me personally, what America looks like is not what my classroom looks like,” she said. “Every day that someone like me goes to work as a scientist, it can feel like you’re going into a war zone, because you’re entering into a space that does not look like your America.”

Contact J.P. Oprison at Follow him on Twitter @joprison.

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J.P. Oprison

JP is a fourth-year journalism major with a minor in history. He is currently the health reporter for The Alligator, focusing on how the pandemic is affecting Alachua County and the thousands of students in Gainesville. In his free time, JP likes to exercise at the gym and relax on the beach.

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