Men were more likely to secure health research grants than women in Canadian study

There appear to be systematic biases in peer review that penalise women applying for research grants, according to a new analysis by researchers at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and McGill University in Montreal. The team suggests that policy changes, training and monitoring could help to address the problem.

‘Among people with equivalent funding success rates, men will achieve higher scores than women, and if you are a basic scientist you will see a higher score than applied scientists,’ states Robyn Tamblyn, the scientific director of CIHR’s Institute of Health Services and Policy Research and a senior scientist at the McGill University Health Centre. ‘But, in both cases, men are scoring higher than women,’ one of the study’s co-authors tells Chemistry World.

Overall, the team examined 11,624 applications submitted to the CIHR as part of open grant competitions between 2012 and 2014, of which 66% of principal applicants were men. They found that women who had past success rates equivalent to men received lower scores on their proposals.

The team determined that female applicants in applied sciences needed a past research funding success rate of 50% to achieve a high enough score to land a grant, while their male counterparts only needed a past funding success rate of 23%. Meanwhile, women applicants in basic sciences with a funding success rate of 50% had similar scores to men.

‘Hopefully, this is a temporal effect and we are seeing less of this as time goes on,’ Tamblyn says. The team also determined that female applicants were more likely to apply with multiple co-investigators and ask for less money.

Beyond the finding that the women’s grant applicants did not fare as well as men’s, the team also observed lower application scores among applicants who were older, and those who were evaluated by female reviewers only or reviewers in scientific domains outside the applicant’s.

‘The implications of these findings go beyond health research and funding for health research – the evidence shows that gender bias exists across the board in the peer review process,’ says Rosemary Morgan, a health systems researcher with the school of public health at Johns Hopkins University in the US. Women received fewer grants because their scores were lower, which has further consequences for their careers and for them moving into senior and leadership levels in academia. Having the evidence that quantifies this problem is extremely important,’ she adds.

The authors of the study suggest that training peer reviewers, tweaking current policies and monitoring grant funding rates may help address these biases. They recommend future research into better methods of matching peer reviewers to grant applications, as well as tracking the funding patterns of research proposals, and correcting for potential reviewer biases.