THE STUDY published last week in Science magazine revealing a racial bias in the allocation of biomedical research funds by the National Institutes of Health defies easy analysis. Black scientists were significantly less likely to get research funding than equally qualified scientists of other backgrounds - even though the NIH has no official way of knowing the race of the applicants. The bias, it seems, was unconscious.
This is troubling, not just because it means that potentially important research by African-American scientists is not being pursued. Applications contained the names and institutional affiliations of the scientists, which could have been fodder for grant-makers to make assumptions about race. The study suggests that some African-Americans may suffer from disadvantages in mentoring or networking early in their careers that compound over time and impede their ability to get research grants.
It’s always easy to dismiss racial prejudice as a vestige of the past. Cases of unvarnished discrimination - such as the one brought last week by Attorney General Martha Coakley against a Dorchester bar - can feel dated when Massachusetts has a black governor and the United States has a black president. But even a person who believes himself to be colorblind may still may react differently to someone named Jamal than to someone named James, or to someone from Mattapan versus someone from Medfield. This study should serve as a warning - to the scientific community and beyond - that although outright prejudice is widely shunned, society is not yet cleansed of its residue.