Men disproportionately win NIH's plum award for young scientists

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The National Institutes of Health’s Building 1 houses the office that administers the Early Independence Awards.

National Institutes of Health

Two days from now, a council at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, is set to approve recipients of the agency’s coveted Early Independence Awards (EIAs). These prestigious grants aim to vault the most promising new Ph.D.s to independence by allowing them to bypass postdoctoral fellowships and start their own labs immediately, providing up to $250,000 annually for 5 years. But since the awards were launched by NIH Director Francis Collins in 2010, men have consistently won them in numbers exceeding their representation in the applicant pool (see chart below).

In a 2-day meeting that begins on 17 May, NIH’s Council of Councils will review the scored applications—“to ensure fairness in the review process,” according to the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) page of NIH’s website. However, their recommendations rarely, if ever, diverge from those of a scientific panel that rates applicants.

Men appear to be favored throughout the selection process. Applicants are nominated by their institutions, which tend to put forward more men; and men disproportionately are chosen as winners. This year, another factor is unsettling women: The panel was chaired by cancer scientist Inder Verma, who was suspended from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, last month while the institute investigates allegations of sexual harassment against him. (Verma denies the allegations.) Verma had already been placed on leave as editor-in-chief of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in December 2017, after gender discrimination lawsuits filed last July by female colleagues at the Salk Institute accused Verma of blocking their career advancement and disparaging their science. He resigned the PNAS editorship on 1 May.

Verma’s 11-member panel—six men and five women—interviewed roughly 30 finalists, 22% of them women, in person in March. His was only one score of 11 that were averaged to create a final score for each candidate, and no evidence is available to suggest that he played a role in the apparent bias in past years. (Verma has been on the panel since 2012, and chaired it in 2014, 2016, and 2017, as well as this year.) But when one female finalist learned last winter that Verma was chairing the panel, “I was upset. I was shocked,” she says.

“If NIH wants to make everybody believe that this is a very fair process, they should consider rereviewing the finalists,” says biologist Carol Greider of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who has served on NIH peer-review panels and is co-organizing an upcoming meeting on gender discrimination and sexual harassment in biomedicine.

Nominees for the awards have consistently skewed male. For example, in 2016, women earned 55% of the doctorates awarded in life sciences in the United States; EIA applications that specified gender were 42% female that year. That mirrors the average split—60/40 men to women among applications that specified gender—over all the years of the awards, according to applicant pool data obtained by Science and Science Editor-in-Chief Jeremy Berg under the Freedom of Information Act.

“This is exactly what research on the influence of gender would predict—that men would be favored in the review process for a new, highly prestigious award that is based on potential, not proven ability,” says Molly Carnes, director of the Center for Women’s Health Research at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

In the autumn of each year, dozens of NIH reviewers working remotely rate applicants on their project’s innovativeness, their readiness for independence, and their institutional support—with “particular emphasis” according to NIH, on that support and on “the strengths and potential of the investigator.” Those scoring highest become finalists, who are interviewed in person. After each finalist’s 30-minute interview, each panelist privately scores the candidate. The scores for each candidate are averaged, and a ranked list of the candidates is then forwarded to the Council of Councils, an advisory body to NIH’s Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives. The number of annual EIA awardees has ranged between 10 and 17; last year, NIH made 11 awards.

Men have consistently won a larger percentage of Early Independence Awards (light blue bars) than their percentage representation in the applicant pool (dark blue bars). The growing number of applications that do not specify gender are in gray.

(Graph) J. You/Science; (Data) National Institutes of Health

Men have consistently won more EIAs than would be expected from their numbers in the applicant pool. In 2015, the year the discrepancy was largest, men made up 58% of the applicant pool but won 81% of the awards. The aggregate data stretching from 2011, when the first awards were made, through 2017, shows that the gender skew is statistically significant, and highly unlikely to have happened by chance (see this 2015 blog post from Berg, then at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania).

NIH is keenly aware of the problem, which has sometimes arisen with other marquee agency awards, such as the Pioneer Award. The agency’s FAQs for the EIAs note that “NIH strongly encourages women and members of groups that are underrepresented in biomedical or behavioral research to apply.”

This year, the agency says, 29% of EIA applicants who designated their gender were women; 22% of finalists were women. Tracking and studying the EIAs’ gender disparity is becoming more difficult, however. A growing segment of applicants—29% in 2017, an all-time high and up from 1% in 2011—do not disclose gender.

Verma’s role on the panel has sparked criticism. Says one scientist at an institution that is home to an EIA finalist: “I’m personally really surprised that Verma was allowed to continue in this capacity chairing the panel once the PNAS story came out.”

NIH said in a written statement: “The allegations [against Verma] were unknown to NIH when [he] was invited to chair the panel last November.” Nor, the agency says, did it become aware of Verma’s suspension from the editor job at PNAS last December before his panel had completed its work in March. “Unfortunately, the allegations against Verma and the PNAS suspension did not come to NIH’s attention before the Science article on April 21, when the news was more widely covered.”

Asked whether the scores of this year’s finalists should be revisited, NIH wrote: “We have closely examined the initial review process related to EIA applications. The second stage of peer review (Council level) is in process. We do not see a need to re-review the applications.”

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