Female lead researchers less likely to get grant funding

Women are less successful at receiving funds for research if the application reviewer is asked to evaluate the principal investigator, rather than the quality of the science, according to research published in The Lancet.

“Our study offers the first robust evidence showing that gender gaps in research funding stem from evaluations of the scientist, not the science,” wrote lead author Holly O. Witteman, PhD, of the Université Laval, in Quebec City, and colleagues. “Women are evaluated less favorably as principal investigators during assessment. Bias in grant review, whether individual or systemic, prevents the best research from being funded. When this occurs, lines of research go unstudied, careers are damaged, individual rights and potential go unrealized, and funding agencies are unable to deliver the best value for money.”

Regrettably, bias that prefers males over females in healthcare is a common occurrence. Though women make up 65 percent of workers, only 30 percent of leadership positions in healthcare belong to females. And women make up only 13 percent of CEOs in healthcare. 

Recently, a male physician came under fire for saying that female physicians do not work as hard, which is why a wage gap exists. Furthermore, though females dominate the nursing space, male nurses still typically earn $4,000 more than women for the same work.

The Canadian Institute of Health Research created a natural experiment that divided investigator-initiated funding applications into two grant programs—with and without explicit review focus on the caliber of the principal investigator. The group that did not focus on the principal investigator, focused on the research itself.

The researchers reviewed more than 23,000 grant applications submitted between 2011 and 2016 at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)—63 percent of the applications were from males and 37 percent were from females. Data highlighting principal investigators’ race, ethnicity, indigeneity, and disability were not available.

Overall 16 percent of grant applications were funded. When the grant application was assessed primarily on the quality of the science, the gender gap was less than 1 percentage point. Interestingly, when the grant application was assessed primarily on the leadership and expertise of the principal investigator, the gender gap was 4 percentage points.

“Programs that fund projects, not people, might reduce these barriers,” Witteman said. “Efforts to correct for cumulative disadvantage might also help close gaps that have grown over the course of careers. We would encourage all funders, institutions, journals, societies and individual researchers to consider the role they might all have to play to ensure rigorous, fair peer review.”