Female scientists less likely to receive CIHR grants, stats show  Banner Image

Female scientists less likely to receive CIHR grants, stats show

Article and Photo from the Ottawa Citizen

At a time when getting more women into science is a Canadian government priority, there are new questions about whether gender bias is making it harder for female scientists to get financial support for research and training.

The results of a new grant program through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research are raising flags about possible gender bias in the way funding is approved, something the institute says is on its radar.

During the first pilot phase of its Foundation grants scheme, completed last year, female applicants were less likely than their male counterparts to be approved for research funds.

Sixty three per cent of applications to the grant program were from men and 37 per cent from women. Of those who received funding, 73 per cent were male and 27 per cent were female.

An official with the CIHR said it is too soon to say whether the discrepancy between the rate of male and female applicants approved for funding under the new Foundation grants scheme is a sign of systemic bias, but it is taking a closer look.

“We are taking some action, but it is way too early to say if there is any bias in this particular program,” said Peggy Borbey, director general with the institute’s investigator initiated research branch.

That is not the only program raising gender concerns. Borbey said a “worrying trend” in some scholarship and awards programs has also raised flags about possible bias against female candidates.

“Women are not succeeding at the rate that we would expect over time and we don’t know why so we have got to dig into that,” she said, adding that CIHR takes the issue very seriously.

“We are absolutely committed to making sure we have a fair process in terms of equity and gender.”

Borbey said the CIHR is already taking steps to eliminate unconscious biases that might come into play when research grants are awarded, including developing training modules for peer reviewers to ensure they are aware of the potential for bias in the process.

Borbey said CIHR is taking a closer look at the gender trend in awards and scholarships.

“If we systematically see that the proportion of women funded is not the same as the proportion of men, we can say that shouldn’t be. There should be no reason that women aren’t as successful as men over time.”

The CIHR, Canada’s billion-dollar biomedical research funding organization, has been the focus of criticism in recent months from within the scientific community. Much of the criticism has been around changes to the peer review system for awarding research funds, including a move to put the process online. CIHR president Alain Beaudet said last month, in an open letter, that it has set up an external panel of peer review experts to evaluate the program in 2017. 

Holly Witteman, assistant professor of medicine at Université Laval, looked closely at the gender funding numbers which CIHR first published in a report to university representatives last fall and found that for both early career investigators (who are within five years of finishing their training) and other researchers, male applicants were more likely than female applicants to receive funding.

Women made up 42 per cent of early career applicants to the Foundation program and received 35 per cent of the funding. Women consisted of 33 per cent of non early career applicants and received 26 per cent of funding.

Witteman said the findings concerned her.

“When I look at this as a scientist, this looks like there may be something systemic at both career stages. It is concerning.”

She said she was reassured to hear the issue was on the CIHR’s radar, but noted it can be a difficult issue to fix.

A similar issue has come up recently with the Canada Research Chairs program, one of the country’s top programs to attract academic talent. In April, the Canada Research Chairs Program, of which CIHR is a member, sent an open letter to all university presidents calling on them to meet their own equity goals by hiring more women, visible minorities, people with disabilities and indigenous Canadians.

Science Minister Kirsty Duncan has made getting more girls and women into science a priority.

“Encouraging young women to enter careers in science and technological disciplines is one of my key goals as Canada’s minister of science.”