Opinion: On Being an “African-American Scientist”

05 Mar

If African-American researchers are ever to gain equal opportunities in science, even subtle cases of differential treatment must be stamped out.

By Raynard S. Kington

Raynard S. Kington, president of Grinnell CollegeImage: Justin Hayworth/Grinnell College

A recent experience reminded me of the challenges related to identity and experience in the scientific realm. Two years ago, after leaving my job as principal deputy director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to assume the presidency of Grinnell College, I was senior author of a paper about differential funding rates between African-American and white applicants for NIH grants. Our paper, published in Science in August 2011, demonstrated that African-American scientists are significantly less likely than their white counterparts to receive NIH funding, even when they are similarly qualified.

Our study generated a great deal of media attention; and in every news interview I gave on this topic I repeatedly made two points. First, while our findings suggested that the NIH review system might contain an anti-African-American bias that warranted further analysis, I did not believe that review bias, if confirmed, was the major driver of the differential funding rates between African-American and white applicants. Second, I emphasized my belief that funding differences were instead more likely to reflect subtle and insidious, if unintentional, differences in the experiences of African-American scientists.

And so I was dismayed by a recent news story on about our report that seemed to prove our point about the existence of such unintentional bias. The story identified me as an “African-American scientist,” as have other stories I’ve read over the years.

Is that who I am? And if yes, is it relevant to my research?

Let me answer the second question first. The Scientist article to which I refer mentioned four scientists—and I was the only scientist who was identified by race. Moreover, the article didn’t mention any other demographic characteristics about me—not my age, my gender, my ethnicity, my sexual orientation, my geographic location, not even my current job as president of one of the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges. Nor did it include demographic information about the three other scientists mentioned in the story.

By noting my race, the article seemed to me to plant a small seed of doubt about either my integrity or my competence as a scientist. Why am I an “African-American scientist” while others are simply “scientists?” Is the implication that an African-American scientist is a special type? Do we presume that this type has different views? Even if that was not the article’s intent, the reader’s impression might be the same.

It would be a mistake to think that my concern about the identification of my race reflects anything less than my profound pride in being an African American who is the great-grandson of slaves. It is because of that pride that I take issue with the disrespectful mention of my racial identity in this context.

In other words, and to step back and answer the first of my two questions, I am, in fact, an African-American scientist. But that’s not all I am.

Like all scientists, I have worked hard in my career, and I have had the good fortune to benefit from several mentors and advisors, men and women of diverse races and ethnicities, religions, and backgrounds who opened doors for me and made sure that I had opportunities to succeed.

Take this one, small instance of how a reporter referred to me differently, change a detail or two, multiply it by the thousands of opportunities for such subtle bias to manifest itself in the day-to-day life of a developing scientist who happens to be of African-American descent, let it simmer and expand through several phases of a career, and you could easily produce the kind of federal funding inequalities demonstrated in our paper.

I look forward to the day when all scientists are given equal opportunity—based on objective criteria and equal support and mentoring—to demonstrate their ability to contribute to the advancement of science. We have so many large societal problems that can be solved only by the rigorous application of scientific methods, and we cannot afford to miss a single potentially great scientific mind. Clearly, as our 2011 paper suggests—and as this recent, seemingly casual reference to this “African-American scientist” reminds us—we are still a long way from that day.

Raynard S. Kington, M.D., Ph.D., is the president of Grinnell College. Before coming to Grinnell, he held leadership positions at the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


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