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University of Pennsylvania medical ethicist Anna Wexler is among this year’s winners of the National Institutes of Health’s Early Independence Awards.

Dan Burke Photography

Women fare well in this year’s round of NIH high-risk awards

Last March, Anna Wexler was nearly 9 months pregnant with her first baby—and the timing could not have been worse. The postdoctoral researcher in medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania was a finalist for a prestigious National Institutes of Health (NIH) research award for young scientists. The competition required a 20-minute interview with a review panel at a Washington, D.C., hotel a few miles from the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland—just 9 days before her baby was due.

Wexler and her husband, a physician, packed their car with supplies for the drive south just in case the baby came on the way. Five days before the 12 March interview, her contractions began. By the third day of an unusually long labor, “I had pretty much given up” on making it to Washington, D.C., she says.

In the end, NIH allowed the sleep-deprived new mom to do the interview by web conference during the panel’s lunch break, 2 days after her son was born. And this week, Wexler learned that she is one of 11 winners of the Early Independence Awards (EIAs). The $400,000-dollar-a-year (with overhead costs), 5-year grant will allow her, just a year after she earned her Ph.D. in social science, to launch her own research group looking at social and ethical issues raised by direct-to-consumer and do-it-yourself medicine and science.

A few months later, NIH announced it would no longer require interviews for the EIAs—a change Wexler welcomes. “There was no process or contingency plan if someone was in active labor during the interview component” or for pregnant women who could not fly, she notes. “If you can’t make it equal for everybody, I don’t think that’s fair.”

The dropped interview is one small sign of change at NIH, which has been under pressure to correct a gender imbalance in its high-risk, high-reward program. Women did unusually well in this year’s round for two categories of awards: Half of this year’s 10 Pioneer Awards for established researchers went to women. And five of 11 EIA winners, including Wexler, were women. In past years, the balance has skewed toward men.

NIH officials insist that nothing changed with this year’s review process. “The numbers are small and they fluctuate year to year,” says spokesperson Renate Myles. However, the agency is looking at ways to level the playing field for women. For example, NIH dropped the interview for EIA awards not because some applicants might be pregnant, but because some studies have suggested interviews favor men, the agency says.

The high-risk, high-reward program selects most investigators based on their track record and ideas, rather than a specific research project. After the first winners of the Pioneer Awards in 2004 were all male, women did better in future years, roughly matching the female fraction of the applicant pool (see slide 11 here). But last year, only one of 12 awardees was a woman.

For two other categories, the New Innovator and Transformative Research awards, female winners have generally matched up with the gender split of the applicant pool. (This year, 33% of 58 Innovators and 22% of 18 Transformative Research awardees were women.)

For the EIAs, however, there has been a clear gender discrepancy between applications and winners. This year’s competition also drew criticism because the review panel was chaired by cancer biologist Inder Verma, formerly of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California. Verma, who has since resigned from Salk, had been accused in lawsuits filed in the summer of 2017 of impeding women’s career advancement there. 

This year’s nearly 50-50 split for the Pioneer and EIA awards shows women did disproportionately well: Men made up 72% of the 50 EIA applicants who specified their gender, but won only 55% of the grants; 28% of these applicants came from women, who won 45% of the awards. (Nine applicants didn’t indicate their gender.) Among the 202 Pioneer applicants who self-reported their gender, 78% were men. (Eleven didn’t indicate gender.)

The strong showing by women this year “is good news,” says biologist Carol Greider of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Perhaps the review committee members were reminded that everyone has implicit biases, something she discusses in her own meetings to determine faculty candidates, she says. “I don’t know that this is what happened, but I would hope it is some conscious process that can go forward into future committees, so that this is not a one-off year, but instead a change in policy and culture.”

An NIH advisory group is now looking at other ways to boost the numbers of women and underrepresented minorities who apply for and win the high-risk, high-reward awards. Its recommendations are due out next year.