Smaller Pots for Women

New study of NIH funding says women over all get smaller grants than men, even when controlling for research potential. The findings have implications for their long-term success in academic science.

March 6, 2019
 
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“Publish or perish” is a law of academe. In the sciences, that law might as well be, “Get funding or perish.” And funding is harder and harder to get, with federal research dollars on the decline.

Yet in this Darwinian climate, it’s not exactly survival of the fittest, according to new research that says women get smaller grants than men.

The study, published in JAMA, looks at National Institutes of Health grants from 2006 to 2017. Female first-time principal investigators received a median grant of $126,615, across all grant and institution types during that period.

First-time male grantees, meanwhile, got $165,721. The difference is just about $40,000 -- arguably enough to make or break a project, or a career. While some comparisons of grants by scientists' genders don't take into account that some scholars are more senior or have more of an impact, this study controlled for numerous factors. It also compared only people who received their first grants and were thus at similar points in their careers.

Using publicly available data, the researchers compared the median number of articles published per year, the median number of citations per article and the number of areas of research expertise in published articles for female and male first-time PIs prior to their first NIH grant.

These baseline performance measures were available for about three-quarters of the PIs studied, and the researchers found no statistically significant differences by sex. PIs’ median number of articles published per year was two. Their median number of citations per article was 15, and median number of research areas was two.

As a further controls, researchers looked at awardees of the 10 largest grants to PIs and to awardees at the same 14 Big Ten and eight Ivy League universities.

They also considered NIH’s top 50 institutions in terms of funding, equaling $9 billion, or 38 percent of funding, awarded to 20,335 first-time investigators.

From 2006 to 2017, the NIH awarded 53,903 grants to first-time PIs across all 225 grant types and 2,766 institutions.

Some 44 percent of these grantees were women. For reference, the female enrollment level in U.S. M.D.-Ph.D. programs during the same period was 38 percent.

In addition to finding a $40,000 funding gap across grant types and institutions, the authors found that female first-time PIs for the 10 biggest grant types received a received a median award of $305,823 versus $316,350 for men.

Source: JAMA

Female PIs at the Big Ten universities received a median of $66,365 versus $148,076 for men. Women at Ivy League universities received statistically significantly smaller grant amounts, too: $52,190 versus $71,703 for men.

Same deal at the top 50 NIH-funded institutions, where female first-time awardees received $93,916 in grants, compared to $134,919 for men, based on the median.

There was a notable exception to the overall trend, however: women receiving the common and coveted R01 grants across institution types received $15,913 more than men (median).

The study says that while it controlled for key factors, possible limitations include the lack of data on grant applications that were turned down. It recommends further study of the institutions where inequalities were lowest, for possible insight into the “reasons for sex imbalances in grant amounts awarded during formative career stages.”

Limitations aside, other research suggests an uneven playing field for women’s recognition and funding in the sciences. One 2015 study found, for example, that women in the biomedical sciences receive smaller start-up packages from their institutions.

Teresa Woodruff, co-author of the new study and a Thomas J. Watkins Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and associate provost for graduate education at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, recently published a separate paper in Nature finding that women receive more cash and respect for their work in terms of scientific awards.

Woodruff said Tuesday that the significance of the NIH paper is a call to ensure that male and female PIs get “equitable grant dollars for similar grant types” going forward, to promote “women’s abilities to succeed long-term.”

The takeaway for promotion and tenure committees, which often base their decisions on funding and publication metrics, is that if women “have disproportionately less capital -- both through start-up and their grants -- yet are required to have equal outcomes, it means we are working harder for the same end points,” she said.

As for funding agencies, Woodruff said that the study was controlled by institution, meaning that male and female first-time faculty grantees at the same institution should seemingly have similar research potential. So the fact that there are significant gaps even within institutions means there is “a pervasive problem that could be fixed by having NIH top up grants to females,” putting them on par with male grantees, she suggested.

Ensuring that first-time grantees see equitable funding outcomes could also “limit the loss of women from the biomedical pipeline,” Woodruff said -- a goal many funding agencies share.

The NIH said in a statement that it’s “aware and concerned about differences in funding patterns between women and men in science,” and that Woodruff’s findings are consistent with what the NIH reports in its data book.

“We have and continue to support efforts to understand the barriers and factors faced by women scientists and to implement interventions to overcome them,” NIH said. Director Francis Collins and Janine Clayton, director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health, co-chair a Working Group on Women in Biomedical Careers that is part of NIH’s effort to address barriers for women in science, for example, it said.

NIH and the National Science Foundation are also funding a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine study on these issues, with specific attention to why evidence-based interventions have not been more widely adopted.

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