Duke administrators and research leaders have been talking recently about an Aug. 19 report in Science Magazine  that showed African-American scientists being significantly less successful at winning career-starting RO1 grants from the National Institutes of Health.

The study, from University of Kansas economist Donna Ginther and Grinnell College President Raynard Kington, found that a black scientist’s odds of winning the grant were about 10 percent lower than a white scientist’s. Hispanic and Asian faculty were found to have about the same success rate as white faculty, when some statistical controls were imposed.

Is the lower success rate for black faculty evidence of institutional racism by the panels of scientists that review grants, or are other forces at work? NIH Director Francis Collins co-authored a commentary in the same issue of Science that pledged to investigate the reasons behind the disparity and urged universities to work closely with the funding agency to improve the situation.

At Duke, an analysis by the Office of Research Support found the success rate of proposals submitted by African-American faculty to be about equal to that of other faculty.  African-American faculty had a 33 percent success rate on all federal proposals over $100,000, versus 29 percent for all other faculty. On NIH grants, which were the subject of the Kansas study, black and non-black faculty at Duke both had a 29 percent success rate on their proposals.

However, since African-American faculty accounted for just 2 percent of all of the Duke funding proposals sent out from Fiscal Year 2004 to FY10, campus officials are cautious about assigning too much statistical significance to these findings.

Jim Siedow, Duke’s Vice Provost for Research noted that he was pleased, but not surprised, to see that Duke’s black faculty were so competitive for external funding calling them “a stellar group of researchers.”  He also reiterated Duke’s commitment to expand the number of black faculty in the sciences as well as other fields

( Review what Duke has done about faculty recruitment in this 2009 series from Duke Today.)