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Stanford University School of Medicine

Women scientists inhibited by funding methods that favor men, researchers say

Female scientists could be losing ground as a result of research funding review methods that favor men, two Stanford researchers say.

Women in science could be losing ground because of methods to review requests for research funding that favor men, say two Stanford researchers in a commentary in The Lancet.

In their piece, researchers Jennifer Raymond, PhD, and Miriam Goodman, PhD, explore gender bias in scientific research funding, highlighting a related article by Canadian researchers about an analysis of funding in their country.

The Canadian team examined a gender gap in research funding supplied by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, analyzing the differences in allocations under two review models: one that prioritized the expertise and leadership of investigators; the other focused on the merits of the ideas or projects.

The analysis of funding from 2011-2016 showed that when peer reviews prioritized assessments of the scientists, male investigators were 1.4 times more likely to receive funding than female investigators. But when reviews gave more credence to the quality of the scientific ideas, there was no significant difference in funding between men and women. 

Public and private funding agencies traditionally review both the science and the investigators. But a move in recent years toward prioritizing the merits of investigators has resulted in a further widening of funding disparities, Raymond and Goodman say. 

Raymond told me that research demonstrates that men enjoy numerous advantages in science, including higher salaries, better start-up packages and lab space assignments, or more invitations to serve as advisory board members for biotech companies.

"There are biases, small and large, that result in kind of a positive feedback loop" for men, notes Raymond, a professor of neurobiology who chairs a grant review committee at the National Institutes of Health.

In the commentary, she and Goodman provide a hypothetical scenario about a male and a female researcher who have projects that are equally likely to yield a cure for Alzheimer's disease. If gender bias results in the man receiving funding, his future success is potentially more secure because the award allows him to better advance his science by bringing on extra researchers and publishing more papers.

"The system compounds itself," explains Goodman, a professor and chair of molecular and cellular physiology who is a reviewing editor for two journals in neuroscience. "Initially, the scientists who are funded have been able to become more resourceful and do better science — because some had resources and others didn't."

Further, she notes, "I think the underlying question of equity is also the question of return on investment. Ultimately, all funders would like to fund a large number of excellent science projects. But if the funding skews which projects are funded based on characteristics of individual investigators unrelated to the research they might lead, and not the projects that can yield the best results, there are funding inequities that can affect the science."

Some agencies are addressing inequities, and both writers highlight recent success by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in balancing funding by changing its application and review process to focus specifically on research, and to eliminate criteria that could reveal an applicant's gender.

Canadian researchers suggest adjusting reviews to account for bias, but Goodman and Raymond propose a different solution: flipping the model so double-blind reviews of the proposed research are done before individual investigators are evaluated.

"It's such a simple fix to first evaluate the science," Raymond says. "You have to evaluate the scientist, too, but that can certainly be done as a second step, with less emphasis on that."

Both writers explain that widespread change is likely to be slow, but more nimble funders could enact rapid change by investing resources to close the gender gap in research funding. And, they note, changes that benefit women scientists also may boost the work of minority scientists.

Meanwhile, they say, it pays to have solid data showing that gender bias exists in funding exists.

"Unfortunately, there's not one thing we can point to as a place where we should intervene," Raymond notes. "But funding is the most important one. If you want to start leveling the playing field, that's one you can't ignore."

Photo courtesy of Chan Zuckerberg Biohub

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