Maryland Smith Research / May 29, 2024

Study Examines Gender Disparity in Science Research Funding

Gains in Resources Flow to More Senior than Junior Women Biomedical Scientists; ‘Gender Tenure Gap’ Factors Significantly, Smith Researchers Show

Junior women scientists receive less NIH funding and face lower tenure rates, with only 20% achieving tenure compared to nearly 40% of men, underscoring ongoing inequities in biomedical research careers.

Women increasingly populate the ranks of doctoral degree holders in U.S. life-science fields — from 32-38 percent in the mid-1980s to about 55 percent in 2020. But the trend is partly problematic.

Among biomedical scientists, senior women have benefited disproportionately to their junior counterparts in “both [research] funding amount and likelihood,” writes Associate Professor of Management and Organization Waverly Ding at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, with her co-authors, in research published at Nature Biotechnology. An underlying factor, she adds, is a structural set of tenure-inhibiting factors.

Ding collaborated with Smith doctoral candidate Beril Yalcinkaya, Chris Liu (University of Oregon’s Lundquist College of Business) and Andy S. Back (University of Hong Kong Business School).

They examined National Institutes of Health (NIH) distribution of 2.3 million grants to biomedical researchers between 1985 and 2017. They also referred to National Science Foundation data on academic scientist tenure trends.

In addition to the research funding gap, their findings illustrate a persisting gender disparity: “Women haven’t entered the tenured ranks in biomedical sciences at a rate commensurate to that of their entrance into the field.” For the past three decades, that probability has been about 20 percent for women and nearly 40 percent for men — leading to $8.73 billion in NIH research awards to men and $4.16 million to women.

Systemic Trend

While modern academia has embraced a diverse scientific workforce, Ding and her colleagues say the concept of indefinite tenure has evolved to placing job and resource stability as necessary preconditions.

Subsequently, as they explain, “with fewer resources accruing to junior-career-stage scientists, shortened career profiles and muted chances of achieving tenure, the scientific benefits that accrue from gender diversity will not be fully realized until junior members of the disadvantaged group (namely women) achieve more improvement in funding resources to narrow the gap to their more advantaged peers.”

Essentially, younger scientists face a twofold disadvantage: from increasing cohort competition among (young) peers as well as decreased attention relative to (older) high-status incumbent scientists.

And even though improvement in funding outcomes for senior women scientists helps close their gaps to senior men scientists, such “funding concentration is problematic if it systematically hinders the chances of funding for a specific subset of scientists, such as junior scientists in disadvantaged groups,” the authors say.

So, to fully realize the benefits of diversity in the scientific research field, steps can include designating research funding and providing grant-writing assistance to young women scientists, Ding says.

She and her co-authors cite an example: A recent Howard Hughes Medical Institute announcement to commit $1.5 billion to increase diversity, equity and inclusion among early-career scholars. “Without initiatives such as this one, there is little doubt that a continued lack of improvement in funding resources for junior members of disadvantaged groups will lead to the degradation of the vitality of the scientific workforce.”

Read “The impact of gender diversity on junior versus senior biomedical scientists’ NIH research awards” at Nature Biotechnology.

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