Chinese funder lets women get early career grants up to age 48

Female researchers given additional three years to apply to reflect childbearing and caring responsibilities

七月 27, 2023
Nanchang, China, June 02, 2012 Colour photograph of a street in Nanchang, Jiangxi Province China. In the centre os the picture is a mother dressed in a blue t-shirt top and jeans with her hair tied back she is holding hands with two little girls dressed i
Source: iStock

One of China’s largest research funders has extended the eligibility of female researchers for its early career award to age 48.

The age limit for the Excellent Young Scientist Fund, run by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), was previously set at 45 for male and female applicants.

But women have been given three extra years to apply for the fund, which offers grants of 4 million yuan (£435,000) over a five-year period, in an attempt to improve diversity and recognise the impact of childbearing and caring responsibilities on career paths.

Universities and science institutes have been told by China’s government to prioritise female researchers for funding, with the Ministry of Science and Technology identifying age-related limits on funding as a particular concern.

Under the current system, working mothers may miss out on crucial funding in their twenties and thirties, and are then made to retire in their fifties, making it difficult for them to reach professorships or leadership positions.

The announcement triggered debate online. On one forum for university teachers, one poster asked: “What about gender equality? Is it gender discrimination?” Another comment said: “There is no need to promote political correctness in scientific research. We should work with our own flair.”

But Hugo Horta, associate professor of education at the University of Hong Kong, described the change as a “step in the right direction”.

“It will help to balance the gender gap in Chinese academia and above all, to make sure that deprivation capability is mitigated because it allows female academics to be able to participate and contribute to research endeavours, when before this would be much more difficult for them to do,” Dr Horta said.

NSFC has previously allowed extensions to grant durations of up to 24 months to allow for childbearing.

It has been reported that the number of female applicants to the foundation’s regional science and key project programmes has increased by 7.4 and 3.1 percentage points respectively in the decade to 2021.

However, the overall proportions of female applicants to these funds remain relatively low, at 29 per cent and 13.1 per cent.

And many other funders cut off early career funding at age 40, making it difficult for women to cover academic and family responsibilities at a time when China is promoting a three-child policy to boost its birth rate.

“I would not presume that research funders at regional levels and universities will follow suit immediately, but it creates the conditions for these institutions to be more willing to do the same in the short to mid-term,” Dr Horta said of the NSFC policy.

A paper that he co-authored shows that male and female scholars in China hold different views on gender biases, and “male academics believed that there was no gender discrimination in academia”.

Dr Horta said there were other measures that could benefit both male and female academics, including a greater focus on research quality over quantity and therefore a move away from the current “publish or perish” dynamic, allowing for longer-term projects that can enable scientists to develop more strategic and long-term research projects that are able to meet complex challenges.



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Reader's comments (1)

Why make age a criterion at all? Why not just leave it open and judge on merit?