Grant reviewers ‘biased’ against female scientists, study finds

Poorer performance found to be based on less positive evaluation of female principal investigators, not differences in the quality of science

January 9, 2018
Woman with giant scissors round her neck
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Women are less likely to be awarded research funding when applications are assessed primarily on the background of the principal investigator rather than the merits of the science, according to a study that adds to the evidence of gender bias within peer review.

Researchers at Canadian institutions including McGill and Laval universities were able to explore the issue after the Canadian Institutes of Health Research introduced two new funding streams in 2014. In one, the Project programme, 75 per cent of the assessment score was based on reviewers’ ratings of an application’s ideas and methods, and 25 per cent revolved around the researchers’ expertise, experience and resources. In the second, the Foundation programme, 75 per cent of the score focused on principal investigators’ leadership, productivity and track record, with 25 per cent centred on the research.

Looking at 23,918 applications submitted by 7,093 principal investigators over a five-year period, the researchers found that the overall grant success rate was 15.8 per cent, a paper on preprint server bioRxiv says.

Women were less likely to be successful than men but, significantly, there was a difference in the performance of women across the two funding schemes: the gap was 0.9 per cent on the Project programme but 4 per cent on the Foundation programme. Further analysis found that the gap in the results for the Foundation programme was driven by discrepancies at the first review stage, which focused on the principal investigator.

The researchers say that their findings “support the hypothesis that gender gaps in funding stem from female principal investigators being evaluated less favourably than male principal investigators, not from differences in the quality of their science”.

“Bias in grant review prevents the best research from being funded. When this occurs, lines of research go unstudied, careers are damaged, and funding agencies are unable to deliver the best value for money,” warn authors Holly Witteman, Michael Hendricks, Sharon Straus and Cara Tannenbaum.

“To encourage rigorous, fair peer review that results in funding the best research, we recommend that funders minimise opportunities for bias by focusing assessment on the science rather than the scientist, measure and report funding by applicant characteristics, including potential confounding variables, and consider reviewer training and other policies to mitigate the effects of all forms of bias.”

Their paper adds that, after the period that was studied, the CIHR introduced training in unconscious bias for reviewers and started using gender quotas on the Foundation programme to ensure that a proportional number of women would get through to the stage at which their research was assessed.

In the Foundation grant round that followed, success rates were equivalent for male and female principal investigators.

Commenting on the findings, Helene Schiffbänker, deputy head of the Technology, Innovation and Policy Consulting group at Austria's Joanneum Research institute, said gender-biased evaluation of proposals is "mostly not intentional", but rather comes from "a lack of knowledge" from reviewers.

"For example, women are checked for mobility or independence, while men are not: they are perceived as 'naturally' mobile," she said.

The issue is not limited to male evaluators, she added: "Women share gendered norms of the science system and gender stereotypes. It is important to raise gender awareness of male and female reviewers."

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