New Study Says Black Scientists Are Underrepresented in National Institutes of Health Program

Woman scientist

Woman scientist

A recent study by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine shows that African-American scientists are almost non-existent in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) program, which gives out hundreds of awards each year to help small businesses translate biomedical discoveries into products. According to, the NIH gave out three-quarters of a billion dollars this year as part of a long-running federal research program to encourage innovation among small businesses.

In a survey of principal investigators who received a late-stage Small Business Innovation Research Program (SBIR) award from NIH between 2001 and 2010, out of 604 respondents, only two were Black. The Assessment of the SBIR and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) states that Data from NIH indicate that the share of Phase I awards made to SBIR/STTR Minority-Owned Small Businesses (MOSBs) has declined from a peak of 3.5 percent in 2006 to less than 2 percent in 2014.

African-American involvement in the program was also low. The 2014 Survey indicates that Black-owned small businesses accounted for only 0.7 percent of all respondents, while Hispanic-owned small businesses accounted for about 1.7 percent. The low numbers aren’t surprising, since 2013 data from the National Science Foundation says that only 3 percent of Black men work as scientists and engineers.

“SBIR is the end of the pipeline for a successful scientist who plans to commercialize a discovery,” African-American biomedical scientist Chad Womack, who also serves as national director for STEM Initiatives and the UNCF-Merck Fellowship Program at United Negro College Fund, told “And there just aren’t enough African American scientists in that space, at that level, to take advantage of the opportunity.”

In response to low numbers in minority groups and MOSBs, the NIH, together with the Department of Health and Human Services, are targeting events to reach out specifically to women and minority-owned small businesses. Matthew Portnoy, SBIR/STTR program coordinator at the NIH, said that the NIH has diversity supplement programs to support under-represented groups on SBIR and STTR awards. Additionally, the NIH convened a workshop to identify mechanisms for improving the participation rates of  women and people of color in the SBIR program.

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