Gender bias in peer review of research grants may penalize women

(Reuters Health) - Female researchers may be less successful at winning grant funding than their male counterparts with similar experience and qualifications at least in part because of gender bias among reviewers, a Canadian study suggests.

In theory, the goal of using peer reviewers to assess grant applications is to have experts in that field award funding based on the merits of the project and the qualifications of the applicants. But in practice, the study found that females tended to focus on research areas that aren’t prioritized by grant funders and get assessed by less experienced reviewers who reject more projects.

“We know that female academics are less likely to be promoted to leadership positions within universities and that they are less likely to receive research funding,” said lead study author Robyn Tamblyn of McGill University in Montreal.

“The question has been whether these differences are due to differences in the quality of the applicants,” Tamblyn said by email. “This study showed that when we compared male and females scientists who were of equivalent quality that females still received systematically lower scores on their applications for funding.”

Female scientists are more likely to be in the applied sciences, focused on clinical issues, health services and population health - all areas that aren’t as appealing to reviewers as basic science, the study found.

Applied science research can matter a great deal to patients, however, because it often focuses on questions that can have an immediate impact on the cost or quality of care. This type of research is more likely to focus on questions like whether vaccines cause autism, which devices and surgical methods work best for hip replacements, and whether universal insurance for prescriptions makes people with chronic diseases healthier, Tamblyn said.

Women typically work in larger teams of investigators, which can also lower their score when peer reviewers assess whether their projects merit grant funding, the study found.

In addition, female researchers are more likely than their male peers to have their applications reviewed by reviewers with less expertise, and who are also female. These factors, too, appear to result in lower scores.

Although there are more male scientists applying for funding, male and female reviewers did not rate male and female applicants differently.

As reported in CMAJ, researchers examined data on 11,624 grant applications submitted to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research from 2012 to 2014.

Two-thirds of applicants were male and 69 percent were at least 40 years old.

Almost two-thirds of applications, or 64 percent, were in basic science, with the remainder from applied sciences focused on clinical questions, health services and population health.

When researchers looked at reviewer characteristics (including gender, previous success rates with grants, experience, scientific domain, conflict of interest and more), they found these traits did introduce bias into peer review. Furthermore, this bias resulted in a reduction of applicants’ scores that was large enough to make the difference between a project getting funded or rejected.

The study wasn’t designed to prove whether or how grant reviewers’ characteristics might directly impact the chances of applications getting approved.

Still, the results offer fresh insight into roadblocks faced by female researchers as they try to advance in their chosen fields, said Rosemary Morgan, author of an accompanying editorial and a researcher at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

“As science and leadership positions are both strongly associated with men, women have to show that they are more competent than men in order to be assessed equally,” Morgan said by email. “Peer review exists to try and create objective measures of excellence, and reduce bias, but it is not a perfect system.”

SOURCE: CMAJ, online April 23, 2018.