Bias hinders women in science looking for grants

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Female health researchers who applied for grants from Canada’s major health research funder received funding less often than male counterparts because of potential bias, a new study shows.

The study also indicates that characteristics of peer reviewers can affect the result.

Additionally, researchers found that applicants who had not previously received funding also received lower scores, making them less likely to be funded.

“…gender bias within the grant review process is a manifestation of historical and systemic gender bias within academia…”

Between 2012 and 2014, researchers submitted 11,624 applications to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) open operating grant competitions. Two-thirds (66 percent) of applicants were male and 69 percent were aged 40 years or older. Almost two-thirds of applications (64 percent) were in basic science, with the remainder from applied science (16.6 percent clinical, 8.1 percent health services, and 11.3 percent in population health).

Looking at reviewer characteristics, including gender, previous success rates with grants, experience, scientific domain, conflict of interest, and more, the study in the journal CMAJ found that these traits did introduce bias into peer review of grant applications. This bias led to lower scores that could place the application in the non-fundable range.

CIHR’s annual investment in health research is about $1 billion a year as of 2018.

Previous studies have found inconsistent evidence of bias, but few studies have analyzed whether reviewer characteristics could potentially bias applications.

“This study confirmed many of the suspected biases in the peer review of operating grant applications and identified important characteristics of peer reviewers that must be considered in application assignment,” writes Robyn Tamblyn, scientific director of the CIHR Institute of Health Services and Policy Research, a professor at McGill University, and a senior scientist at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre.

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“By measuring and controlling for scientific excellence of the applicant, we were able to examine how applicant, application and reviewer characteristics may unduly influence the assessment of operating grant applications.”

The researchers also found that reviewer expertise influenced the application rating, as reviewers with high expertise rated previously successful applicants higher than less experienced applicants.

“We found lower scores for applied science applications, gender inequities in application scores that favoured male applicants who had past funding success rates equivalent to female applicants, particularly in the applied sciences,” write the authors. “Conflicts on the panel, male reviewers only, reviewers with all high expertise, and those whose own research was exclusively in the same scientific domain as the applicant’s conferred positive benefits in application rating.”

They suggest that training of reviewers, policy change, and monitoring may help address these biases.

“These findings are important, as securing less funding slows career progression for women and reduces opportunities for publishing and other forms of collaboration, which are criteria for professional advancement,” writes Rosemary Morgan of the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, in a related commentary with coauthors.

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“To understand why this occurs, we must recognize that gender bias within the grant review process is a manifestation of historical and systemic gender bias within academia,” Morgan writes.

Source: McGill University