Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Gary Waters/Getty Images

Men get larger first NIH grants, but is the news all bad for female scientists?

A headline-grabbing study out this week is adding to concerns about gender bias in science: Women received about $40,000 less than men in their first funding award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), or just $127,000 per year. But surprisingly, women’s median award size was larger than men’s for NIH’s standard independent research grant. A close look at the data, which cover more than 200 different kinds of grants awarded by NIH, suggests the story is more nuanced than the overall numbers indicate.

Researchers at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, examined 53,903 grants from 2006 to 2017 that went to first-time principal investigators (PIs). Men and women didn’t differ significantly in some research metrics, such as the number of publications. Yet the median size of a grant for male PIs was $165,721, whereas for women it was just $126,615 or 24% smaller, the authors reported on 5 March in JAMA. The results were even more striking for some types of institutions: At Big Ten public universities, for example, grants to men were more than twice as large as those to women ($148,076 versus $66,365).

That difference has profound implications for a woman’s scientific career, the study’s authors say. “This shows women are disadvantaged from the very first NIH grant they submit relative to their male counterparts. This represents an early stumbling block” that means women have less money for equipment and hiring graduate students, corresponding author Teresa Woodruff wrote in a press release. NIH, too, “is aware and concerned about differences in funding patterns between women and men in science,” the Bethesda, Maryland–based agency wrote in a statement.

But lost in the tweets and widespread press coverage—and buried in the paper—was a nugget of good news: For first-time R01s, NIH’s main independent research project grant, women received a median of $364,509—5% more than men. NIH has also long found that for all (not just first-time) R01s, women got larger awards, but men have more awards overall and therefore more total funding.

What’s more, the agency’s latest data show modest differences between men and women in a broader category of funding called research project grants (RPGs) that includes R01s and is defined as support for specific projects performed by a named investigator. RPGs are often crucial for sustaining a lab and gaining tenure. In 2018, women’s overall RPG awards averaged $519,000, or 5% less than men. (At the National Institute of General Medical Sciences [NIGMS], one of NIH’s 27 institutes, analyses have found minimal gender differences for that institute’s RPGs. However, as with all NIH R01s, men held more grants overall.)

So why did the Northwestern authors find a much larger disparity of 24% in median award size? The explanation seems to be that the team looked at all 225 NIH award types—from small awards for training and conferences to large center grants, which support multiple projects, and contracts that often fund research services or resources, such as creating reagents or coordinating clinical trial data. The median awards to men were substantially higher in some non-RPG categories: In particular, male PIs got $126,000 more for a contract called an N01 that accounted for almost one-third of all funding examined.

Jeremy Berg, a former NIGMS director who is now editor-in-chief of Science, calls the study “sloppy” because it “mixes apples and oranges.” He also finds it confusing that an investigator’s first award could be a center grant, which almost always go to experienced researchers with previous grants. “Overall, I think this provides more heat than light and is essentially useless in terms of thinking about policy implications,” Berg says.

But Brian Uzzi, a co-author on the JAMA paper with postdocs Diego Oliveira and Yifang Ma, defends his team’s decision to cast a wide net and study a range of funding categories besides R01s and other RPGs. The R01s made up only 11% of all NIH grant money in the study, he notes. And, he adds, even if it’s for a resource or a conference, “any grant money is advantageous for an individual’s career.”