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Female scientists get smaller first-time grants than men

(Reuters Health) – Women in science receive smaller research grants than men even when they have similar qualifications, a U.S. study suggests.

Researchers analyzed 53,903 grants awarded by the National Institutes of Health to first-time principal investigators from 2006 to 2017. Men and women were similar on key benchmarks used to assess applicants; regardless of sex, half of them had published at least two research papers a year, had their articles cited at least 15 times in other papers, and published in at least two research areas.

But overall, median awards for women were $126,615 versus $165,721 for men. (Half of recipients received more than the median, and half got less).

“That means female scientists are disadvantaged from the beginning of their careers and the kind of scientific and clinical questions they ask are less likely to be answered,” said study co-author Teresa Woodruff of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

“If women are disadvantaged from the beginning of their careers, they are less likely to persist in science and medicine,” Woodruff said by email. “Less diversity in scientists means less diversity in how the next generation of clinicians are trained.”

Disparities in funding persisted when researchers focused on men and women from the same universities, or on scientists from the 50 institutions that get the most funding from the NIH, or on recipients of the 10 most highly funded grants awarded to individual principal investigators only.

For example, for the 10 highest-funded grant types, women received median awards of $305,823 compared with $316,350 for men.

At the 14 Big Ten universities, women received median grants of $66,365 compared with $148,076 for men. Big Ten schools include institutions like Northwestern University in Evanston, Ilinois; the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor; Ohio State University in Columbus; the University of Wisconsin in Madison; and the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

At Ivy League universities, meanwhile, women received median awards of $52,190 compared with $71,703 for men. The Ivy League includes schools like Princeton University in New Jersey; Columbia University in New York City; Harvard University in Boston, and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

And when researchers focused on the top 50 NIH-funded institutions, women received median awards of $93,916 compared with $134,919 for men.

The study wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how sex might directly impact NIH funding. It’s also possible that factors researchers weren’t able to measure influenced the amount of grant awards, the study authors note in JAMA.

“There are a number of reasons that women might have received smaller awards,” said Dr. Carrie Byington, dean of the Texas A&M College of Medicine in Bryan.

“The gender disparity in salary between men and women might be one reason,” Byington, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email. “Personnel costs are a major portion of grant budgets and if women are paid less than men, the overall budgets might be smaller.”

More research is needed to fully understand what’s driving this disparity, and to examine whether proposed budget cuts at the NIH might disproportionately impact female scientists, Byington added.

It’s possible women might be asking for less money than men, and it’s also possible that they’re requesting similar amounts but receiving smaller awards, said Rosemary Morgan, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore who wasn’t involved in the study.

“Each reflects gender bias in the system – in either the ways in which women are brought up to ask for less or the system not seeing their work as equal to that of men’s,” Morgan said by email.

“This matters for patients as researchers tend to research areas that are relevant to them – with women more likely to research issues related to women’s health,” Morgan added. “If female researchers are receiving less funding then the issues that female researchers are studying are receiving less money.”

SOURCE: JAMA, online March 5, 2019.

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