The NHMRC’s old bloke problem

For years the National Health and Medical Research Council has not succeeded at quelling criticism of gender imbalance in grants – now it offers serious suggestions

The NHMRC presents a new paper outlining achievements and setting out stats to show agency funding rates by gender “have been close to equal since 2017.”

But, and it is a very big but indeed, it acknowledges an issue with Investigator Grants, the foundation of a comprehensive restructure in 2018, which allocate salary and support funds to “highest performing researchers” at all career stages (CMM May 26 2017).

As the NHMRC now puts it, in the first three years of Investigator awards, “more men than women applied for and were awarded … and higher overall funding was awarded to men than to women.”

But not just any men.

“The predominance of male applicants at the most senior levels of the scheme, where budgets tend to be largest, is a major factor underlying the award of more grants and more overall funding to men than women.”

So what is to be done?

NHMRC states “it does not have a settled position … and is open to considering a range of possible changes, some of which would be more feasible than others.”

But one way or another they all involve actions to increase grants for women researchers, including, * quotas, * separate competitive grant budgets for men and women, * equal funding rates and * requiring institutions to submit equal numbers of applications from men and women.

“The challenge for NHMRC is to find a path that provides the greatest possible opportunity for women, early and mid-career researchers and others who are currently missing out on funding, at great cost to the research sector, without risking a significant loss of experience and expertise at the more senior levels where progress towards gender equity in the sector is slow.”

It’s a challenge the agency will have to meet. Having put quotas on the agenda there is no way it can take them off.