US science prizes overlooking Asian researchers

Professor counts Asian Americans as winning 3 per cent of nation’s major biomedical prizes, prompting promises to do better

February 3, 2022
Young female scientist looking in microscope
Source: iStock

Ethnic Asian scientists are significantly under-represented among major US biomedical research prizewinners despite their strong overall scientific presence, an analysis has concluded.

The tally, counting the nation’s eight oldest biomedical prizes – including the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, the E. B. Wilson Medal and the March of Dimes Prize – found just three Asians among their 117 total awardees over the past decade.

Such data reflect “the trend of a diminishing representation of Asians as they move up the career ladders”, the study’s author, Yuh-Nung Jan, a professor of physiology at the University of California, San Francisco, wrote in the journal Cell.

Professor Jan drew several other comparisons – including populations of scientists and levels of research citation – to argue that the low numbers of awards to Asian American researchers did not fairly reflect their scientific contributions.

The reasons for the gap are unclear, but do not appear to be a result of conscious racism, said Professor Jan, who is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator – one of the most prestigious positions in medical research.

Instead, Professor Jan said, it more likely “reflects the larger issue of the underappreciation of Asian people in the United States”. That manifests, he said, in habits such as scientists routinely referring to their Asian colleagues collectively rather than taking time to know them individually.

Representatives of some of the awards cited by Professor Jan said they understood the seriousness of the problem and described ongoing work to address it.

The selection process for the Gruber Prize in Genetics does include instructions to consider diversity in areas that include race and gender, said Sarah Hreha, executive director of the Gruber Foundation at Yale University. “We continue to revise processes and procedures to ensure fairness as we strive for a representative pool of candidates,” Ms Hreha said.

The Genetics Society of America, which awards the Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal, is currently “scrutinising its processes with a particular focus on diversity in award selection, at all levels”, said the organisation’s executive director, Tracey DePellegrin. “We fully recognise that the process of further diversifying the pool of nominees and awardees can be improved.”

Professor Jan said he has witnessed some progress. He said he decided to pursue his investigation last year after seeing the American Society of Cell Biology announce that it would allow self-nomination for its ASCB awards. “This new policy is a laudable effort to open up the awards and increase the diversity of the candidates to be honoured by ASCB,” he told Times Higher Education.

But the overall situation remains poor, Professor Jan said. Asian scientists captured less than 7 per cent of all awards from the eight US biomedical prizes that are at least 35 years old, he found. That share drops below 3 per cent – three of 117 – if counting only those won in the past decade. By comparison, he reported, Asian scientists represent 14 per cent of the 582 highly cited biosciences researchers listed in 2021 data by the analytics company Clarivate.

Women, meanwhile, appear to be making substantial gains, collecting 27 per cent of those eight prizes over the past decade, as compared with 14 per cent over the full history of those awards, Professor Jan found.

The situation for black and Hispanic scientists appeared far worse, with no apparent representation among the prizewinners, Professor Jan reported. Unlike Asian scientists, black and Hispanic researchers also remain “severely under-represented” from the beginning levels of academic science, he said.

The study was published just one day after the March of Dimes announced the winner of its annual Prize in Developmental Biology. It – along with Gruber Prize and the Morgan Medal – is among the five of eight awards with no Asian winners listed in the past decade.

The March of Dimes said the award – this year honouring Alan Flake, a professor of surgery and obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Pennsylvania – recognises a career of work. That can reflect accomplishments from as long as 25 years ago, “when there were far fewer minority scientists in this field and the field of medicine in general”, said the chief scientific officer at March of Dimes, Emre Seli, a professor of obstetrics, gynaecology and reproductive sciences at Yale University.

The organisation’s largest research grant funds a centre headed by an Asian American, and it “takes seriously the need for better representation of minority researchers in the scientific, and particularly maternal foetal health, field, and will continue to do our part to elevate the faces and work of these communities”, Professor Seli said.

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