Focusing on science reduces bias in research funding

Credit: India Price/ Credit: India Price/

When scientists apply for research funding and reviewers evaluate applications with a focus on the applicant's CVs, male scientists are more likely than female scientists to receive funding. When reviewers focus on the proposed research, the bias vanishes.

These were the findings of a recent study of 24,000 grant applications to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), a federal funding agency similar to the U.S. National Institute of Health.

In 2014, CIHR replaced its traditional grant application system with a more modern one, consisting of two complementary grant application programs. In one program, grant applications are evaluated primarily based on the proposed research the grant would support. In the other, grant applications are evaluated primarily based on the applicant — their previous research and their career.

A team led by health-informatics researcher Holly Witteman examined three years' worth of grant applications and their outcomes, comparing the two grant programs. They found that in the program that focused on the applicant, not the proposed research, male applicants were four percent more likely than female applicants to have their applications accepted. "That’s a significant difference,” Witteman says, especially considering the overall application acceptance rate was about 15 percent. This gender bias was not present in the grant program that focused on the proposed research itself.

This study's results are less ambiguous than other studies on gender bias in grant applications. Previous studies have been often inconclusive because they typically did not take into account the research fields of applicants (and the gender ratios in those fields), the nature of the grant program, and what factors the reviewers were actually assessing. Witteman says her team was able to draw "more robust conclusions" because of the unique dual structure of CIHR's grant program and because they statistically accounted for the factors that many other studies have not.

The study's findings are hopeful because it shows that sometimes it only takes a simple change to reduce bias: in this case, asking application reviewers to focus on the science rather than the scientist.