Funding for women in medical research: “a very stark ratio”

In 2017, the new National Health and Medical Research Council adopted a well-regarded funding system.  (CMM May 26 2017). It came as young researchers despaired of low success rates and women were appalled at the gender in-balance of grants

The NHRC did not say the new model would fix either, which was wise – because it hasn’t.

NHMRC chair Anne Kelso briefed  NSW medical researchers Tuesday, on the first round of the new Investigator grants, the $365m scheme (40 per cent of funding), which provides five years of flexible funding, including salary, if needed and research support.

There were 1857 apps for the first awards, “more than we wanted but pretty much what we expected” Professor Kelso said.  This was a rise on the old scheme and as there was no increase in funding the success rate went down, 13. 2 per cent, below the 15 per cent in some years of the old Discovery awards.

The news for women researchers was also as bad as previous. There were more applications from women at the junior level but in the most senior category men dominate four to one. “It’s a very stark ratio and tells us something pretty fundamental about our system” Professor Kelso said.  The male-female success rate is close in the junior and mid-career categories, but she reminded her audience that the NHMRC separately funded projects with female leaders, and that these are included in the figures. At the most senior level the success rate was 50 per cent for male research leaders and 30 per cent for women (five out of 17).

So, what is to be done, a questioner asked, is it time for quotas? Professor Kelso responded, “I think we are very close to needing to start that discussion. We wouldn’t introduce strict quotas, a formal quota mechanism, without consultation with the sector – I am thinking about how to do that. But when you consider that the last two rounds of project grants and now Investigator grants have gone below the line to fund additional women, that is the reason that success rates are as close as they are for most of those levels. So, we have virtually imposed a quota system.”

And they may not be the whole answer; “it is easy to say, and of course it is a factor that when women are having their families it is then very much harder to be a full-time researcher and to do all the travel and other things that are part of being a full-time researcher and being competitive in a scheme like this which is so track-record driven.”

“But there may be more to it, there may be that women who are faced with those circumstances are more likely to look for something where they get a salary from an institution rather than applying for schemes like this.”

But whatever the reasons, Professor Kelso is not happy. “I have been in this system for a good many years and it is just shocking to see that we are still in this situation today. “