Tolerance as men win disproportionate share of Australian medical research funding

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Biomedical researchers in Australia receive less funding on average than their male counterparts.Credit: Lisa Maree Williams / Getty

Men get a larger share of medical research funding than women in Australia’s largest scholarship program, one analysis finds, despite applications at similar rates. The problem was first reported by researchers in 2019; however, this time around 6,000 people signed a petition calling for the introduction of gender quotas.

“It is destructive to the soul to see a disproportionately higher number of bright young women stagnating or being kicked out of the system compared to their male counterparts,” Rachael Murray, biomedical scientist at the Queensland University of Technology, told Brisbane.

The findings come after the National Board of Health and Medical Research (NHMRC) completely overhauled its funding programs in 2018-19, attempting to take gender equity into account.

Funding puts women at a disadvantage

The fellowships in question are research fellowships from the NHMRC, comprising Australia’s largest research funding program, which bundles salary and project support into one flexible five-year fellowship for top researchers at different stages. of their career. Prior to 2019, scientists had to apply for a scholarship to fund their salary and separate grants for their research.

The NHMRC has already recognized equity issues and in 2018 released a report on the gender strategy. The hope was that by combining salary and research funding, the new grants to researchers would allow projects to continue if their leaders had to work part-time due to childcare or other responsibilities.

But data from the latest funding round in 2021, released in October, suggests the new program still favors men over women.

The men won more grants and received more money, according to Louise Purton, a stem cell biologist at the St Vincent Institute for Medical Research in Melbourne and Jessica Borger, a medical researcher at Monash University in Melbourne, who calculated the numbers and revealed the disparity in an article for the Australian news site Women’s Agenda.

“The men have received a disproportionately 23% additional grant, which equates to additional funding of $ 95 million,” they write.

Across the program, men and women applied for grants at similar rates – with 865 men applying for funding, alongside 850 women. But 143 men got total funding of A $ 245 million (US $ 176 million), compared to 110 women who made just $ 153 million (see “More money for men”).

The scheme offers scholarships at three levels of seniority. At the most junior level, women as a whole received equal amounts of funding as men, but the distribution of grants for more established scientists was heavily skewed in favor of men. According to the analysis, only around 20% of the awards given to the most senior scientists went to women.

Anne Kelso, chief executive of the NHMRC, agreed that there are clear gender disparities, but says they reflect the disparities in the gender balance in the makeup of scientists at different career stages in Australian universities. .

“The main contributor to the researchers’ grant results is the predominance of male applicants at the top level of the program,” she said. Nature. At this level, for which funds awarded are the highest (see “Falling success rates”), there were about four times as many male applicants as female applicants, she says.

“Australia has a terrible record”

The petition, created last month in response to Purton and Borger’s analysis, says the NHMRC “gives women much less funding than their male counterparts in a failing system,” which it says “requires a strategic overhaul. urgent ”.

He asks the funding body to allocate the same amount of money to men and women and to include a separate pot for non-binary applicants. He is also pushing to set gender quotas for scholarships at each level of seniority.

Responding to these calls, Kelso said that “all options are on the table,” adding that “NHMRC’s programs are constantly reviewed to ensure they are meeting their goals” in terms of gender equity.

Megan Head, an evolutionary biologist at Australian National University in Canberra, agrees with adopting gender quotas for funding programs. “Australia has an appalling gender equality record in science, technology, engineering and math,” she says.

Similar problems have been reported in other countries. A 2019 survey in the UK suggested that women who set up their own labs tend to be paid less and have fewer staff than men.

But an analysis of data from the U.S. National Institutes of Health, published in 2018, suggests that although women are more likely than men to drop out of academia early in their careers, once a female scientist is receives a large grant from the agency, she is almost as likely to stay in research as her male counterparts.

Despite the disparity in grant results this year, Kelso argues that across the NHMRC – which distributes $ 1.1 billion annually – the funding rates for men and women are nearly equal. And since 2019, the organization has also introduced mechanisms designed to improve the diversity of grant recipients, including using a separate prize pool to fund top performing applicants who narrowly missed a grant. of researcher.

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