Hughes Selects Its (Mostly Male) Early-Career Scientists

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute has chosen 50 early-career biomedical scientists to each receive a 6-year, $1.5 million grant to chase their research dreams. The winners, chosen from nearly 2100 applicants, include experts in fields as varied as stickleback fish evolution, organ regeneration, and biophysics of DNA repair. What the list does not include, however, is an abundance of women.

Forty-one of the new hires are men; nine are women. The overwhelmingly male ratio (more than 4 to 1) is consistent with past outcomes, says HHMI spokesperson Avice Meehan. “The number [of women] is within the ballpark percentage of prior competitions—they oscillate between a quarter and just under a quarter,” she said.

It’s “disappointing” to hear that, notes Donna Nelson, an organic chemist at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, who has conducted studies of women in science. The ratio of men to women receiving Ph.D.s in the biological sciences in the United States is now roughly 1 to 1, recent data from the National Science Foundation show, and has been that way for more than a decade. The last time the male-female ratio for Ph.D.s hovered at 4 to 1 was in 1978.

Meehan explains that HHMI’s selections were “based on scientific accomplishment and future promise without regard to gender, race, ethnicity, or other protected categories.” HHMI also made an effort to distribute awards among geographic locations, by gender, ethnicity, and scientific field, she said. She adds that only about one-quarter of the applicants were female, which helps to explain the outcome.

HHMI President Thomas Cech, who steps down today after 10 years at the helm, pushed these early-career awards because he and others felt that government institutions had become too slow to recognize talent-risking career gridlock. Tomorrow marks the first day on the job for Robert Tjian.