New analysis of funding trends offers encouraging news for female investigators—with caveats

Once female scientists receive a major research project grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), their funding futures are quite similar to those of their male peers, a new study reports. That suggests gender represents a small, and shrinking, barrier to success in a biomedical science career, the authors argue, and it emphasizes the importance of encouraging women to apply for grants in the first place. Yet these statistics belie the significant systemic hurdles that persist for many women, others say.

The study helps illustrate where work remains to be done to truly make opportunities in science equal for men and women, says Donna Ginther, a professor of economics at the University of Kansas in Lawrence who studies the scientific workforce, and who wasn’t involved with the study. “The more evidence we have about where [bias] is happening and where it’s not happening in the pipeline, the better we’ll be able to address those problems.”

Women make up slightly more than half of the biomedical Ph.D. recipients in the United States, yet they remain stubbornly underrepresented among the ranks of tenured and tenure-track professors. In absolute numbers, women also submit and receive fewer NIH major research project grants, despite being as successful as men at winning first-time grants.

But existing data were less clear on whether women grantees enjoyed similar funding longevity as men. So Judith Greenberg, a developmental biologist who serves as deputy director of NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences, and colleagues tapped into NIH’s database to track the “survival” rates of 34,770 scientists who received their first major research project grant between 1991 and 2010. Investigators were said to have “survived” if they consistently received NIH funding with no gaps longer than 3 years.

Men’s survival rate over this period was higher than that of women, but this advantage was slight, just 3.5 percentage points. “This small gender difference in funding longevity runs contrary to the traditional ‘leaky pipeline’ view,” the authors write.

Moreover, in recent cohorts—investigators who received their first grant between 2001 and 2010—that advantage disappeared entirely. And when the researchers controlled for characteristics such as age at which the applicants earned their first research project grant and what type of degree they held—Ph.D., M.D., or M.D.-Ph.D.—funding longevity was the same across genders.

However, a telling gender difference emerged when the authors narrowed their attention to competitive renewals—applications to re-up funding for an existing grant, which are often an important component of tenure review and promotion at universities and other employing institutions. On average, women submitted eligible grants for renewal 42% of the time and won funding 36% of the time, compared with 45% and 39%, respectively, for men. Women’s review scores for their renewal submissions were also slightly lower than men’s scores. This slight gender disparity could manifest itself in some women either failing to get tenure or facing career uncertainty and consequently leaving academia, the researchers report today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Although there’s work to do in encouraging greater numbers of women to apply for grants and renewals, the overall results suggest that once women in the biomedical sciences get their foot in the door, they have basically an equal chance at long-term success as their male colleagues, Greenberg says. “The perception that they’re not going to succeed can be a major hurdle for many women who might otherwise want to pursue a career in biomedical science,” Greenberg says. “Changing that narrative is, I think, the real bottom line of this paper.”

Anna Kaatz, a computational data scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison who studies diversity in the scientific workforce, agrees that the overall picture painted by the paper is encouraging. Yet the study glosses over the systemic pressures that discourage women from applying for grants and renewals at the same rate as men, she says. For example, women are less likely to have strong mentors who teach them grantsmanship skills or push them to apply. Furthermore, Kaatz says, early-career women in academia tend to have less institutional support for their research than men, with more onerous teaching loads and smaller laboratory staffs, which can make applying for grant renewals a daunting prospect.

Finally, women in biomedical sciences tend to have more collaborative, interdisciplinary interests than men, which could deter them from renewing existing grants in favor of pursuing new research programs, Kaatz notes. In these cases, failing to renew might be the intentional act of a successful career scientist, yet the statistics come across negatively by traditional metrics.

These are questions future analyses of NIH funding trends should consider, she says. “There could be a shift in [investigators’] behavioral norms that policy and analysis just haven’t caught up with yet.”

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