Inequalities in the Distribution of National Institutes of Health Research Project Grant Funding

In its Fall 2020 edition the Journal of Economic Perspectives featured articles on income and wealth inequality. There is ample evidence that in the United States and in Europe inequality has increased over the last 40-50 years. While the factors underlying increasing inequality are complex, there is also concern that high levels of inequality are themselves harmful, possibly contributing to worse population health (e.g., lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality, and more mental illness).

There are similar concerns about the distribution of funding across NIH-supported scientists. Katz and Matter described increasing inequality over time, while the ACD Working Group on Changing the Culture to End Sexual Harassment voiced concern that “the concentration of funding in a relatively small number of investigators” might contribute to unsafe working environments. One intriguing report suggested that excess concentration of resources might inhibit scientific innovation.

This past September, my colleague and I published a paper in the journal eLife on inequalities in the support of scientists designated as Principal Investigators (PIs) of NIH Research Project Grant (RPG) awards. We found that funding inequality among PIs has increased over the past 25 years, but may have decreased modestly in more recent years. We also found greater levels of inequality across organizations.

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