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  • When assessments were based solely on the quality of the science, the gender gap between grants accepted was a mere 0.9 percentage points.

    When assessments were based solely on the quality of the science, the gender gap between grants accepted was a mere 0.9 percentage points.

Published 7 February 2019

The experiment analyzed nearly 24,000 grant applications over five years at the Canadian Institute of Health Research — Canada's main public medical research funder.

Women are less successful in receiving research funding than men when the selection process focuses on the gender of the scientist making the pitch rather than the merit of the science itself, according to new research released Friday.

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In an edition of The Lancet medical journal, that is dedicated entirely to gender issues in health and science, the paper showed that the gap between male and female success rates in grants receipt grew when gender was not identified.

The experiment analyzed nearly 24,000 grant applications over five years at the Canadian Institute of Health Research — Canada's main public medical research funder.

In 2014, there was a change in the application process involving splitting funding reviews into two separate schemes;  one with an explicit focus on the applicant and the other evaluating the science. The method created a "unique natural experiment," according to the authors of the study.

When assessments were based solely on the quality of the science, the gender gap between grants issued and accepted was a mere 0.9 percentage points.

But when the assessments were based on an evaluation of the principal scientists pitching the project, the gap between male and female acceptances grew to 4 percent.

"This shows us that men and women proposed science is evaluated to be of similar quality, but men and women are not evaluated similarly as scientists," Holly Witteman, associate professor in the Department of Family and Emergency Medicine at Laval University, Quebec, said.

Witteman explained that there may be a number of reasons behind this, including individual or systemic biases. Whether consciously or unconsciously, reviewers "tend to think as men being better scientists than women," she told AFP.

Friday's edition of The Lancet also featured studies into sexual harassment within scientific and medical fields, and how women are poorly represented in the research community despite making up 75 percent of health workers worldwide.

"Something has gone badly wrong in global health," the journal's editor-in-chief, Richard Horton, said. "The global health community has abdicated its responsibility for achieving gender justice in health."

Witteman said that despite some progress — notably the awarding of last year's Nobel Prizes for physics and chemistry to women — science and medicine had a long way to go to redress gender imbalances.

"I would like this to be done and solved and for us not to have to worry about bias getting in the way of assessing science and awarding grants based purely on merit," she said. "I believe that prizes should be awarded on merit and I believe that merit should be free of bias."

In October, Canadian scientist Donna Strickland became only the third woman in history to win the Nobel Physics Prize. Twenty-four hours later, U.S. biochemist Frances Arnold was awarded the chemistry prize, the fifth woman to receive the honor.

"It's convenient for some people to believe there is no bias in the system but when we look closer we often find that there is," Witteman said.

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