Personal bias can widen gender gap in research funding: study

When reviewers focus on the applicant rather than the strength of the study, women scientists seem to lose out
Women are less successful in receiving research funding than men if the selection process focusses on the scientist making the pitch rather than the science presented, according to new research released on Friday. In an edition of The Lancet medical journal dedicated entirely to gender issues in health and science, the paper showed that the gap between male and female success rates in grant acceptance grew when things got personal. The experiment analysed nearly 24,000 grant applications over five years at the Canadian Institute of Health Research — Canada’s main public medical research funder. In 2014, the body changed its application process, splitting funding reviews into two separate schemes — one with an explicit focus on the applicant, the other evaluating the science.
Natural experiment
In doing so, they created a “unique natural experiment”, according to the authors of the study.
When assessments were based solely on the quality of the science, the gender gap between grants accepted was a mere 0.9 percentage points. But when the assessments were based on an evaluation of the principal scientists pitching the project, the gap between male and female acceptances grew to four percentage points. “This shows us that men and women proposed science is evaluated to be of similar quality, but men and women are not evaluated similarly as scientists,” said Holly Witteman, associate professor at the Department of Family and Emergency Medicine at Laval University, Quebec. Ms. Witteman said there may be a number of reasons behind this, including individual or systemic biases.
‘Biases’ at play
Whether consciously or unconsciously, reviewers may “tend to think as men being better scientists than women,” she said. Friday’s edition of The Lancet also featured studies on sexual harassment within scientific and medical fields, and how women are poorly represented in the research community despite making up 75% of health workers worldwide. “Something has gone badly wrong in global health,” said the journal’s editor-in-chief Richard Horton. “It’s convenient for some people to believe there is no bias in the system but when we look closer we often find that there is,” said Ms. Witteman.

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