Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Administrators at the National Institutes of Health’s Building One in Bethesda, Maryland, say they want more female and minority applicants for the prestigious “high risk, high reward” program.

National Cancer Institute

NIH marquee awards for ‘high risk, high reward’ projects skew male—again

The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) on 1 October announced the winners of an annual crop of prestigious “high risk, high reward” (HRHR) awards. The plum awards provide generous, multiyear funding to a select group of scientists—101 this year—doing outside-the-box research that might not survive standard peer review. But in past years, the awards have been scrutinized because of the paucity of women among awardees.

For women, this year’s harvest was a mixed bag. For three of the four types of HRHR awards, women won in numbers that met or exceeded their representation in the applicant pool. However, that representation was meager: Eighteen percent to 38% of the applicants for these four awards were women, although women have earned more than 50% of U.S. Ph.D.s in biological sciences in every year since 2008. What’s more, in the award that is arguably best positioned to help women at a critical time in their career—the Early Independence Award (EIA), which allows awardees to skip a postdoc and start an independent lab immediately after a Ph.D.—women constitute 38% of applicants but only 25% of awardees. “I don’t see why consistently fewer women should make it through than apply,” says Monica Mugnier, a molecular parasitologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who won an EIA in 2016.

The sample size is small: Among the new EIA winners, three of 13 were women, notes Kristin Knouse, a 2018 EIA winner who is a cell biologist at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But, she adds, women have been underrepresented among EIA awardees in eight of the 9 years since the award was launched (see graph, below). “In aggregate over all the years, there has been a significant bias,” Knouse says. “There needs to be a systematic examination of where this awardee bias is arising.”

But Olivia Corradin, also at the Whitehead Institute, who in 2017 won a comparably generous early-stage investigator award from NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, cautions against reading too much into the data. “You could pull the same analysis for the Pioneer Award and you might conclude that they are over-representing women. That would also be risky.” (Women have won Pioneer Awards in numbers that met or exceeded their representation in the applicant pool in seven of the past nine years. In 2019, applicants were 18% women—and 45% of awardees were women.)

Women 50% 40 30 20 10 0 2011 Pioneer award 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 Applicants Finalists Awardees Early independence award Women 50% 40 30 20 10 0 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 Applicants Finalists Awardees
Graphic: N. Desai/Science; Data: NIH

The low number of women applying for all four awards is the main concern, says James Anderson, who directs NIH’s Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives, which supports the HRHR awards. “The thing we need to focus on is encouraging more women to apply for these awards,” he says. “We take this pretty seriously. We gotta change these numbers.” (For the other two types of HRHR awards this year, the Transformative Research and New Innovator awards, women were, respectively, 20% and 30% of applicants, and won, respectively, 24% and 33% of awards.)

In 2018, NIH became concerned enough about gender and other disparities among HRHR applicants that Director Francis Collins asked a group of NIH and external experts to review the program. That working group’s final report, issued in June, recommended that NIH reach out vigorously to institutions and populations—including underrepresented minorities and women—that historically have not applied for HRHR awards in large numbers.

The advisers noted that topic bias is also an issue: Both applications and awards have preferentially mapped to mechanistic and subcellular topics, such as gene regulation and neuronal circuits, as opposed to, for instance, clinical research and behavioral, psychological, and social science. They added that the awards appear “biased toward institutions and organizations with large, well-known biomedical research programs.”

(NIH has responded to the recommendations by implementing some and rejecting others, such as a proposal for a separate HRHR award for clinical research.)

Even before June, NIH had tweaked its announcement inviting applications for these awards in 2020, says Ravi Basavappa, the HRHR research program leader. (He was reached by phone last week on his way to a Nevada meeting where he publicized the HRHR awards to scientists from states that have historically drawn less NIH funding.) “We strengthened our inclusivity language quite a bit [to make clear] that we do welcome research from the whole spectrum of institutions in the country and from all sorts of [applicants]—and that basic research, translational research, clinical research, social science research—whatever is in the broad mission of NIH” are welcome topics for applications.

NIH is also publicizing the HRHR program at meetings of underrepresented minorities like the annual conference of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science that starts later this month.

The stubbornly low numbers of women applying for all HRHR awards, and their poor record at winning EIAs, “shows just how difficult [change] is,” says Molly Carnes, a working group member and a professor of women’s health at the University of Wisconsin in Madison who has studied implicit bias. “We live gendered lives. When you evaluate men and women’s science, their science is filtered through the fact that they are men and women. That’s how the human mind works.”