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NIH ‘high risk, high reward’ awardees skew male—again

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Science  18 Oct 2019:
Vol. 366, Issue 6463, pp. 290
DOI: 10.1126/science.366.6463.290

When the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) announces each year's winners of plum “high risk, high reward” (HRHR) awards, which go to about 100 scientists doing outside-the-box research, the paucity of female winners regularly raises eyebrows. Despite NIH's efforts to improve the picture, this year's winners, announced on 1 October, were no exception.

Although women won three of the four types of HRHR awards in numbers that met or exceeded their representation in the applicant pool, that representation was meager: For all HRHR awards, 18% to 38% of applicants were women, although women have earned more than 50% of U.S. Ph.D.s in biological sciences since 2008. What's more, for the Early Independence Awards (EIAs)—which can boost women's careers at a crucial time by allowing new Ph.D.s to skip a postdoc and start an independent lab immediately—women constituted 38% of applicants, but only 25% of awardees.

The EIA sample size is small: Among the 13 new awardees, three were women. Still, women have been underrepresented among EIA winners in eight of the 9 years since the award's launch. “In aggregate over all the years, there has been a significant bias,” says Kristin Knouse, a 2018 EIA winner who is a cell biologist at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “There needs to be a systematic examination of where this awardee bias is arising.”

But Olivia Corradin, also at the Whitehead Institute, who in 2017 won a similar early-investigator award for innovative research from NIH, cautions against reading too much into the data. “You could pull the same analysis for the [HRHR] Pioneer Award and you might conclude that they are overrepresenting women.”

Women have won Pioneer Awards in numbers that met or exceeded their representation in the applicant pool in seven of the past 9 years. This year, 18% of applicants—and 45% of awardees—were women.

The low numbers of women applying for all four awards are the main concern, says James Anderson, who directs NIH's Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives, which supports the HRHR awards. “We need to focus on encouraging more women to apply,” he says. “We take this pretty seriously. We gotta change these numbers.” (For the two other types of HRHR awards this year, the Transformative Research and New Innovator awards, women were 20% and 30% of applicants, respectively, and won 24% and 33% of awards, respectively.)

In 2018, concerned about disparities among HRHR applicants, NIH Director Francis Collins convened a working group to review the program. Their final report, issued this past June, urged vigorous outreach to institutions and populations that historically have not applied for HRHR awards in large numbers. The report also flagged a bias in favor of awards to scientists at high-profile institutions, and for proposals to study mechanistic and subcellular topics over, for instance, behavioral and clinical research.

In April, NIH tweaked its call for 2020 applications. “We strengthened our inclusivity language,” says HRHR Program Leader Ravi Basavappa, to make clear that the agency welcomes research from the whole spectrum of institutions, all sorts of applicants, and any topics within its mission.

Both the stubbornly low numbers of women applying for HRHR awards and their poor record at winning EIAs show “just how difficult change is,” says Molly Carnes, a working group member who is an expert on implicit bias and a professor of women's health at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “We live gendered lives. When you evaluate men and women's science, their science is filtered through the fact that they are men and women. That's how the human mind works.”

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