At Duke, black medical researchers buck the national trend and land federal grants. Well, not many of them.

✔ Fact Checker here. Good day fellow Dukies!

Under the direction of a vice provost who flies very much under the radar, James Siedow, this university does quite a bit of self-study.

Under the radar? Never before discussed in a Fact Checker report, Siedow, trained in the academic disciplines of botany and biology, popped up as a secondary player in only two Chronicle stories in the past year, with no direct quotes and only 39 words sourced to him.

So what does he study? A few years ago, one page from one tantalizing report was liberated from the usual Allen Building secrecy. The study compared the achievement of racial groups with what had been expected of them. In other words, given the credentials like high school grades, College Board scores and all the other factors that admissions officers looked at, how did white, Asian, African-American and Latino students fare. (We arranged so that the largest group comes first, the smallest last)

Only Asians did marginally better than expected as Duke undergraduates. Whites and Latinos had a little dip, but there was a significant drop-off for black students.

Rather than spawning great concern that Duke was not coming through for them, and not allowing them to realize the potential they had demonstrated, this study frightened administrators into a tighter circle of secrecy.

This is important hot potato stuff, and try as hard as we could, FC and Deputies could obtain no more than one page. Realizing the substance of reports is so secret, FC switched and asked John Burness, now retired as VP for public relations, if we could at least see a list of the title of reports from Siedow's office.

The answer came back within the hour. No dice, this is Duke, this is the Brodhead years.

✔✔ So it was refreshing yesterday to see Siedow as the source of a Duke news release. My goodness, the University was actually telling us about something he studied.

That something is how our black research professors fared when seeking federal grants, specifically from the National Institutes of Health, which distributes a large slice of the available scientific money.

At Duke, the analysis was done by the Office of Research Support, which is one of the divisions found on the rather complex organizational chart of the provost's and vice provost's office.

Press release quote: "African-American faculty had a 33 percent success rate on all federal proposals over $100,000, versus 29 percent for all other faculty. On (grants made through the National Institutes of Health) black and non-black faculty at Duke both had a 29 percent success rate on their proposals."

Now the fine print. Proposals from African-American faculty accounted for just two percent -- correct, 2 percent -- of all the Duke funding proposals sent out in a six year period that was studied.

This press release undoubtedly was occasioned by an article in Science magazine, that found black researchers landing research dollars for a significantly smaller percentage of their proposals than whites. This has set off something of a time-bomb in the academic world.

More press release, this one from the NIH itself:

"Black applicants from 2000-2006 were 10 percentage points less likely than white applicants to be awarded research project grants from the National Institutes of Health, after controlling for factors that influence the likelihood of a grant award, according to an NIH-commissioned study in the journal Science."

As for other ethnic groups: Although Asian applicants also were less likely to receive an award than white applicants, those differences disappeared when the sample was limited to U.S. citizens. Award probability for Hispanic applicants did not differ significantly from white applicants.

The bosses at NIH, including Director Francis Collins, promptly called the findings "disturbing and disheartening, and we are committed to taking action."

Collins: "The strength of the U.S. scientific enterprise depends upon our ability to recruit and retain the brightest minds, regardless of race or ethnicity. This study shows that we still have a long way to go. It is imperative that NIH and its partners in the biomedical research community take decisive steps to identify causes and implement remedies. NIH is already moving forward with a framework for action."

FC is compelled to note that the NIH study covered 40,069 grant proposals. Only 1.5 percent -- 598 -- were from blacks. There were 3.3 percent from Latinos (1,319), 13.5 percent from Asians (5,402), 71 percent from whites, and 11 percent from researchers who either did not disclose or wrote "other."

That there is any racial disparity at all is surprising. An applicant can list race and ethnicity voluntarily when asking for a grant. But all that information is not available to reviewers, although an applicant's name or school which is in the reviewed materials can be suggestive of race or ethnicity.

And back to Vice Provost Siedow for a footnote: as FC wrote, it is refreshing to see some of Duke's institutional research available, but fellow Dukies, don't get used to it.

Thank you for reading and supporting FC!

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