My last blog gave reasons why women might be at a psychological disadvantage when applying for scientific grants. I didn’t have any evidence that they were disproportionately unsuccessful, it just seemed likely from my observations.
Yesterday’s Guardian confirmed that in 2016-17 women were principal investigators on 7% of grants awarded by EPSRC, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and the average amount awarded to women was less than 40% that awarded to men. This came out following a Freedom of Information request from Michaela Kendall, whose experiences ring some alarm bells:
In 2017 she applied for seven government science grants from the EPSRC, Innovate UK and Local Enterprise Partnership. All seven proposals were rejected though highly scored. Her father, Prof Kevin Kendall, made one proposal based on the same business case and that proposal was accepted.
I should admit a personal stake in this argument: I left UCL after failing to establish myself as an independent researcher due to a series of unsuccessful grant applications. Some were highly rated by the peer reviewers, but the funding panels still said no. The final straw was when a senior male colleague was rejected in the same round as me: he contested the decision and was awarded the money after all. As a young female postdoc, it felt like that option was not open to me.
To some extent it may be fair for funding councils to take into account the personal track record of a scientist not only the proposed programme of work itself. A high-profile full professor probably has a better chance of delivering an ambitious piece of research than a more junior colleague. And yet… if one wanted to design a glass ceiling this is exactly how to do it: anonymous funding panels with no challenge to any unconscious bias they might have.