A recent article in The Lancet suggests that women are less likely than their male counterparts to receive federal research funding when being assessed on their merit as scientists.

Current literature on the gender gap in funding across countries and academic domains supports this finding. However, previous research has been criticized for its observational nature and failure to demonstrate any causal relations between gender and favourable outcomes.

The value of the study in The Lancet is that, beyond controlling for common confounders such as age and research domain, it uniquely presents the merit of the principal investigator as a control variable through its structure as a natural experiment.

A natural experiment is a form of observational research, in which participants are not assigned their experimental conditions by the investigators, but are exposed to them through natural or external determinants. Although the study’s quasi-experimental design means that there was some intervention by researchers in participant selection and so was not strictly observational, according to the report, the filters imposed by grant program applications mitigated this selection bias.

“To our knowledge, this is the first quasi-experimental evidence that looks at this and looks at gender gaps in research funding, and I think that’s really one of the key things,” said Sharon E. Straus, principal investigator and Professor in the Department of Medicine at U of T, in a phone call with The Varsity.

In 2014, the Canadian Institute of Health Research phased out its traditional grant program in favour of one that reviewed the calibre of the principal researcher and one that did not. Straus and other interested researchers were provided with an opportunity to exploit this division and dissect the nuances of the observed gender gap in academia.

“For more than 50 years, we’ve had more women at the undergraduate level and academics, and we’ve had more women at the graduate level for more than 25 years… but that doesn’t translate into more opportunities for women in terms of leadership within academics,” said Straus.

“Women don’t get promoted at the same pace as their male counterparts, and they are less likely to get grant-funded and less likely to be involved in large collaborative projects moving to publication.”

According to the research institute, overall success across applicants was 15.8 per cent. Considering only the successful applicants who were evaluated on their merit as scientists, women were at a four per cent disadvantage in securing research funding.

Women were at a 0.9 per cent disadvantage to their male counterparts when assessed on the merits of their proposed research.

These numbers demonstrate that gender gaps are not the result of women proposing less compelling research or producing research that is assessed as lower quality. Rather, they suggest that the discrepancy between genders in the allocation of research funding stems from less favourable assessments of women as principal investigators.

It’s unclear whether the cause of these discrepancies resides implicitly on the part of the reviewers, or systematically in the established review criteria when assessing investigators.

Evaluating the biases present in the current system, Straus stressed that “the key thing is we want to make sure the best research is funded, and we’ve clearly identified that that isn’t always the case.”

The biases against female researchers in funding evaluations has implications on the opportunities available to women in academia.

“If women are less likely to get funding, then it is going to impact their careers… To get promoted in academics as a researcher comes down to grants and publications, and so that’s definitely on the causal pathway,” said Straus.