Bias against women may be preventing the best research from getting funded

As competitive as a male scientist.
As competitive as a male scientist.
Image: Reuters/Edgar Su
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When it comes to applying for grants to support scientific studies, female scientists are less likely to succeed compared to male researchers, according to a study from a group of Canadian scientists. They drew the conclusion after comparing nearly 24,000 grant applications from 2011 to 2016 to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the country’s major federal agency responsible for funding medical research.

In a working paper (pdf) made public in December 2017, the researchers, led by Holly Witteman, an associate professor in the department of family and emergency medicine at Université Laval in Quebec, examined the grant applications results from two programs the agency rolled out in 2014. In one grant program, called Project, reviewers placed a 75% application weight on the research ideas, and the rest on their assessment of the researchers’ expertise. The other, called Foundation, reversed the scoring, and placed more importance on assessing the lead applicant’s leadership and productivity. The two programs, which replaced a traditional program that assessed both the science and the lead researcher, offered the chance at a real-life experiment.

In all, the paper examined proposals by more than 7,000 grant applicants. After factoring for age and research domain, the scientists found that male researchers are 0.9% higher than female scientists to get funding in Project, while in Foundation, the gap was significantly higher (pdf, p.8) at 4%. The Canadian researchers suggest that “bias in grant review prevents the best research from being funded.”

“When this occurs, lines of research go unstudied, careers are damaged, and funding agencies are unable to deliver the best value for money, not only within a given funding cycle, but also long term as small differences compound into cumulative disadvantage,” wrote the authors. One way to mitigate bias would be to alter the design of grant programs, and also to offer training to reviewers.

The paper, which has not been peer-reviewed, appeared on bioRxiv, which is operated by a nonprofit education and research institute based in New York. There are also some limitations to the study, its authors noted. For one, they weren’t able to gather the publication records of the principal applicant, which would have bearing on the ability to win funding. It may be possible that the gap in grant success rate is explained by candidates’ publication records.

Still, the study appears to bolster similar research in other fields. For example, in one of the main medical research grant programs in the US, female applicants were less likely to be described as leaders or pioneers than males. Similar bias also existed in the Netherlands.

Outside the field of science, men were more likely to be rewarded for work accomplishments compared to women, according to a recent study that looked at five American and international companies in the real estate, technology, and investment industries.