Conference Coverage

Fund projects, not people to address gender bias in research funding



Female investigators are less likely to secure research funding than male investigators, not because their proposed project is of lesser scientific merit, but simply because they are women, according to research published in The Lancet.

Dr. Holly Witteman, associate professor in the Department of Family and Emergency Medicine at Laval University in Québec City Sara Freeman/MDedge News

Dr. Holly Witteman

Women had a 30% lower chance of success in getting funding for a project than did their male counterparts when the caliber of the principal investigator was considered as an explicit part of the grant application process, with an 8.8% probability of getting funded versus 12.7%, respectively. If the application was considered solely on a project basis, however, the gender bias was less (12.1% vs. 12.9%).

The overall success of grant applications was 15.8% in the analysis, which considered almost 24,000 grant applications from more than 7,000 principal investigators submitted to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) between 2011 and 2016.

“I see our study as basically one good thwack in a long game of whack-a-mole,” lead study author Holly O. Witteman, PhD, said during an event to launch a special edition of The Lancet focusing on advancing women in science, medicine, and global health.

Dr. Witteman’s research is one of three original articles included in the thematic issue that brings together female authors and commentators to look at gender equity and what needs to be done to address imbalances. The issue is the result of a call for papers that led to more than 300 submissions from more than 40 countries and, according to an editorial from The Lancet, highlights that gender equity in medicine “is not only a matter of justice and rights, it is crucial for producing the best research and providing the best care to patients.”

That there are discrepancies in research funding awarded to female and male investigators has been known for years, Dr. Witteman, associate professor of family and emergency medicine at Laval University, Quebec City, said at the London press conference. To learn how and why, a “quasiexperimental” approach was used to find out what factors might be influencing the gender gap.

“Women are scored lower for competence compared to men with the same publication record,” she said. It’s not that they publish less or do easier research, or that the quality is lower, they are just viewed less favorably overall throughout their careers. Even when you control for confounding factors, “they still don’t advance as quickly,” she said.

“It had been documented for a while that, overall, women tend to get less grant funding and there hasn’t been any evidence to show either way if maybe women’s grant applications weren’t as good,” Dr. Witteman explained.

In 2014, the CIHR changed the way it funded research projects, creating a “natural experiment.” Two new grant application programs were put in place which largely differed by whether or not an explicit review of the principal investigator and their ability to conduct the research was included.

Adjusting for age and type of research, Dr. Witteman and her coauthors found that there was little difference in the success of women in securing research funding when their grant applications were judged solely on a scientific basis; however, when the focus was placed on the principal investigator, women were disadvantaged.

Dr. Witteman said that “this provides robust evidence in support of the idea that women write equally good grant applications but aren’t evaluated as being equally good scientists.”

So how to redress the balance? Dr. Witteman suggested that one way was for funders to collect robust evidence on the success of grant applications and be transparent who is getting funded and how much funding is being awarded. Institutions should invest in and support young investigators, distributing power and flattening traditionally male-led hierarchies. Salaries should be aligned and research support evened out, she said.


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