Photograph of two women of color working with a white male colleague in a laboratory.
Unequal opportunities: Attaining “super principal investigator” status can be difficult for researchers who start with fewer resources.
Stígur Már Karlsson / Getty Images

Black and women researchers are less likely to hold three or more NIH grants simultaneously

A growing proportion of researchers has reached such “super principal investigator” status, but the distribution is not even across demographic groups.

Black and women researchers are less likely than their white male counterparts to have three or more grants from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) at one time, according to a new study.

Though the proportion of NIH-funded researchers who reach this status, known as “super principal investigators,” has tripled from 3.7 to 11.3 percent in the past three decades, the increase has not been even across demographic groups. Super principal investigators often drive research agendas and influence policymaking decisions, so it’s important that such leaders have diverse backgrounds, says lead investigator Mytien Nguyen, a doctoral student at Yale University.

“You can’t be what you don’t see,” she says.

Overall, 3,907 people with active NIH grants in 2020 were super principal investigators, according to Nguyen and her team’s analysis of information from nearly 34,000 investigators in a grant database.

Among 334 Black investigators who identified as men, only 7 percent reached super-principal status, compared with 13 percent of the 14,070 white men.

Black women were the least likely: Only 4 percent of 289 became super principal investigators, compared with nearly 9 percent of the 8,037 white women.

“It’s really alarming,” Nguyen says. “This indicates that even though they are successful in receiving the NIH grants, there is an additional barrier for them to have this cumulative funding to reach the super-principal status.”



The findings were published in JAMA Network Open in February.


he structural barriers to achieving this status can start early in life and accumulate, says study investigator José Cavazos, professor and assistant dean of the M.D./Ph.D. program at University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

Even before graduate or medical school, for example, many people from underprivileged backgrounds lack the resources to study for the Medical College Admission Test and other preparatory courses, he says.

“They are not in the same level of opportunities.”

People who start with more resources ultimately get more grants, says Lisa Fortuna, professor of psychiatry at University of California, San Francisco, who was not involved in the work.

Fortuna is an editor at the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, where she looks closely at the number of citations received by authors from underrepresented backgrounds. More citations “give you more juice when you try to get the grants,” she says. “If people don’t invest in you from the beginning, then you are always behind.”

Scientists from minority groups often have to take on additional responsibilities to help address diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility issues in an institution, taking up time that might otherwise be spent on grant proposals, says study investigator Dowin Boatright, associate professor of emergency medicine at New York University. That additional responsibility is not valued by institutions, ultimately contributing to the gaps in productivity, he says.

Black researchers are less likely than white researchers to be awarded funding or to resubmit rejected grant proposals, even when they have a similar history of awards and publications, a previous study shows. People of color are also more likely to do research on health disparities that affect minority groups.

These topics are typically supported by institutes such as the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) that are “usually not well funded,” Boatright says. The NIH’s UNITE initiative is advocating for increased funding to NIMHD, where a high percentage of grant applicants are women and people of color.

Future research should track how such initiatives affect which people achieve super principal investigator status, Fortuna says.

“We have to keep pushing and see if we are really moving the needle,” she says. “It’s been long time coming, and we got to make sure we keep moving the ball in the right direction.”