Nevertheless She Persisted as a Scientist

What matters more: the science or the scientist? That question may help explain why gender gaps exist in research funding.


For years, studies have shown that gender gaps exist in research funding. Women researchers must work significantly harder than their male colleagues to achieve equal recognition, and they remain underrepresented at the highest levels of academia.

For emerging researchers, obtaining grant funding is crucial. So why do these gender gaps exist, and what can be done to address them?

A new study published in The Lancet suggests that the answer lies in whether grant reviewers focus on the principal investigator behind a proposal, or the actual science being proposed.

“When reviewers primarily evaluate the proposed research… male and female scientists have about an equal shot,” said Holly Witteman, associate professor in the Department of Family & Emergency Medicine at Université Laval and lead author of the study, in an interview. “However, when reviewers evaluate the scientist, then women don’t do as well.”

Witteman’s study made use of what she referred to as a “natural experiment” at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). In 2014, the agency decided to phase out its traditional open grant program and introduce two new grant schemes: Project, focusing primarily on the research being proposed, and Foundation, focusing primarily on the principal investigator of the proposal.

Witteman and her colleagues looked at the outcomes of 23,918 different applications submitted to the CIHR between 2011 and 2016. Their dataset contained applications from both before and after the introduction of the new funding schemes, meaning that they could determine whether or not women scientists were being assessed less favourably than their male colleagues under the new researcher-focused Foundation program.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this turned out to be the case. Female applicants were only 0.9% less likely to be funded than male applicants in the traditional and Project schemes. Yet when it came to the Foundation programme, this difference jumped to a whopping 4%.

This discrepancy was only present at the first stage of evaluation, where reviewers were told to focus primarily on the calibre of the researcher. Applications that passed this stage were evaluated based on the research itself, and the gaps between male and female success rates here were significantly lower.

There are many studies suggesting gender gaps in public funding schemes. In fact, the statistics are alarming. But Witteman’s work is unique in that it is the first study to offer quasi-experimental evidence as to where these gaps originate.

The research funding system in Canada is flawed, and leaving it as-is would be a disservice to the numerous talented women currently being overlooked for grants. What’s more, allowing biases to affect the success of a grant application means that the best research in Canada isn’t being funded.

Luckily, there’s hope. Adrian Mota, associate vice-president of research programs at CIHR, says that the agency is committed to eliminating these biases.

“It’s something that’s well-known to us and it’s something that’s one of our top priorities to address going forward.”

With any luck, this means that CIHR will be turning its focus away from the scientists and onto the actual science.

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Emily Deibert is a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto with a passion for science outreach and communication. She earned her HBSc (Astronomy, English, and Mathematics) at the University of Toronto. She is excited about turning scientific research into stories and sharing these stories with the public.