Stop funding research that ignores sex and gender, says expert

Stanford's Londa Schiebinger warns that failure to account for differing impact of interventions on men and women is costing lives

April 4, 2018
Scan of male and female body
Source: Getty

Funding bodies should refuse to support scientific studies that do not examine the potential health effects on women as well as men, according to one of the world’s leading experts on gender in science.

Londa Schiebinger, John L. Hinds professor of history of science at Stanford University, told Times Higher Education that influential scholars had a responsibility to “ensure that sex and gender are designed into research and that this becomes a part of research funding requirements”.

Lack of consideration for biological gender in many scientific studies is “costing lives and money” despite being easily preventable, warned Professor Schiebinger, director of the European and US-based Gendered Innovations project.

In a recent guest lecture at Imperial College London, Professor Schiebinger gave the example of 10 drugs that were withdrawn from the US market because of “life-threatening health effects” – eight of which posed greater threats for women than men. These had not been picked up on in trials because scientists had not taken into account the possibility that the drugs might react differently in men and women, she explained.

“Not only did these drugs cost billions of dollars to develop, but when they fail, they cause death and human suffering,” she said. “We can’t afford to get it wrong.”

Speaking to THE, Professor Schiebinger said that, for a long time, medical science had not served women well. “Just look at Gray’s Anatomy,” she said. “The body pictured is the male body, so it’s assumed the standard is the male.”

“There’s a very interesting misconception that equality requires sameness,” Professor Schiebinger continued. “For a long time, feminists were trying to show that we are the same. In fact, we are [biologically] different, but we should still be treated with equal [precedence].”

Professor Schiebinger has been trying to drive progress forward through Gendered Innovations, a large-scale international collaborative project between Stanford, the European Commission and the US National Science Foundation. It has since expanded into other regions as well as taking on a series of technology “round tables” in Silicon Valley for industry leaders at Google, Facebook and others.

Following the project’s creation, the US National Institutes of Health introduced a requirement for research applications to take sex into consideration as a biological variable in order to qualify for public funding. This, said Professor Schiebinger, is “the correct attitude”, although specific mention of gender should also be included, she noted.

More recently, medical journal The Lancet has adopted editorial guidelines requiring “sophisticated sex and gender analysis” when selecting papers for publication.

However, while the European Commission encourages researchers to integrate sex and gender analysis within applications for the Horizon 2020 scheme, it stops short of making this a compulsory requirement. UK funders also fall far behind in this respect, Professor Schiebinger said.

“If you don’t do the research right, you [shouldn’t] get the funding,” she told THE, adding that funding bodies can make the transition smoother by allocating money specifically for this aspect of research.

However, Professor Schiebinger argued that improving the treatment of sex and gender in research is not just an issue of funding policy; it is also a matter of the identity of the individuals actually conducting the research.

In one study, published in Nature Human Behaviour last November, and based on analysis of more than 1.5 million papers, Professor Schiebinger and colleagues found that papers with female authors were significantly more likely to include gender and sex analysis.

In Professor Schiebinger’s opinion, a “three-pillar” approach is needed: “Fix the numbers of women [within research teams], fix the institutions – making sure they promote gender equality – and fix the knowledge…by integrating sex and gender analysis within disciplines.”

On all of these issues, significant further progress is needed if medical trials and other scientific experiments are to have maximum effectiveness. Already, however, Professor Schiebinger is turning her thoughts to her next challenge: how to deal appropriately with the issue of gender in robotics. She is in discussions with the Japanese government and research agencies on the issue.

“Everything we talk about in Gendered Innovations has to do with getting it right from the beginning,” she said. “[As long as] we are aware of the assumed gender norms that already exist, we can create the technology we want that is inclusive, doesn’t favour one group over another, and benefits society as a whole.”

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