Gender bias in cancer research funding is alive and well in the United Kingdom, a study of 2000-2014 cancer research investment shows. The findings come from a report published online May 14 in BMJ Open.
Analysis of research grants awarded by public and philanthropic funding bodies to UK institutions shows that female principal investigators (PIs) are "clearly and consistently" awarded significantly less money than their male counterparts, especially when they compete for larger research projects of £1 million or more, say the authors.
Over the 13-year period, the average grant value was around 38% greater for male compared with female leaders in cancer research, say Mahiben Maruthappu, MD, from the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, United Kingdom, and colleagues.
Male PIs were awarded 2890 (69%) grants with a total value of £1.82 billion (78%).
During the same period, 1296 (31%) grants with a total value of £512 million (22%) were awarded to female PIs.
Overall, male PIs received 3.6 times the sum investment value compared with female PIs, even though one third of career scientists in the European Union are female. Male research leaders also received 1.6 times the mean award value and 1.3 times the median award values (P < .001) compared with their female counterparts.
This "apparent absolute" gender bias in funding was observed across cancer types, disease theme, research and development pipelines, and funders, the investigators say.
Gender bias appeared to be particularly pronounced in sex-specific research. Male PIs received 13.8 times the investment in total funding for prostate cancer research compared with female colleagues, 9.9 times more funding for cervical cancer research, 4.6-fold more total funding for ovarian cancer research, and 1.6-fold more funding for breast cancer research.
"[T]his study demonstrates substantial gender imbalances in cancer research investment," Maruthappu and colleagues write. "Even when success rates are equal, female scientists tend to receive less in terms of award value. … We would strongly urge policy-makers, funders and the academic and scientific community to investigate the factors leading to our observed differences and seek to ensure that women are appropriately supported in scientific endeavour."
In the European Union, the attrition rate among women exceeds that of men at every stage of career progression, the researchers note. Women represent 46% of PhD graduates and 33% of career scientists. In biomedical research, 17.8% of female scientists are classified as "grade A researchers," the highest level of seniority.
Results of previous studies of gender imbalance in biomedical research indicate that only one fifth of countries worldwide have achieved gender parity, the investigators point out.
What's behind gender bias in biomedical research funding? The investigators caution against drawing any conclusions from this study. "While the gender discrepancies in cancer research funding observed over the 13-year study period are likely multifactorial, this study is fundamentally descriptive in nature and does not allow us to postulate the underlying mechanisms responsible for the observed gender differences," they say.
When asked to comment, Maruthappu noted that in previous research, several potential causative mechanisms have been postulated. These include societally defined traditional gender roles, attitudes toward career deviation and career breaks, lack of mentorship, and institutional discrimination.
The significant concern following such an apparent gender imbalance is the possibility of bias or inequality against women researchers. Dr Mahiben Maruthappu
"The significant concern following such an apparent gender imbalance is the possibility of bias or inequality against women researchers, which must be addressed," he told Medscape Medical News.
"The first step is raising awareness of the quantifiable discrepancies that exist and recognizing that these observed differences warrant an explanation," he said. "On the basis of these findings, it will be possible to develop targeted initiatives to ensure that researchers are adequately supported, and equal opportunities are provided."
Details of the Analysis
For the analysis, the researchers examined funding awards from several public and philanthropic cancer research funding bodies. These included the Medical Research Council, Department of Health, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Engineering and Physical Science Research Council, Wellcome Trust, and European Commission, as well as nine members of the Association of Medical Research Charities. A total of 4186 awards, totalling £2.33 billion, were included.
Analysis of internal annual reports from three of the seven research councils within Research Councils UK showed that female researchers made up 24% of standard grant applications but experienced a success rate of 25% in obtaining funding for shorter projects of less than £1 million in value, compared with 29% of male applicants.
Funding discrepancies along gender lines were especially pronounced when it came to competition for larger grants and studies with a duration of 4 years or longer. Female scientists submitted 17% of the applications for grants of £1 million or more, but only 24% were successful at obtaining these large grants compared with 38% of their male colleagues.
The analysis also showed a statistically significant gender-based difference in median grant value for research funding in three specific cancer sites, although it was not all in favor of male researchers. Men received 2.9 times the funding of women PIs in cervical cancer (P < .001) but women received 2.4 the funding of men in liver cancer (P < .05) and 2.0 times that of men in mesothelioma (P < .01). There were no statistically significant differences in median funding for any other cancer sites.
In 6 of the 14 disease themes analyzed, however, a statistically significant difference in median grant value in favored male scientists. Themes included pathogenesis (1.2-fold difference; P < .001), drug therapy (1.3-fold difference; P < .001); diagnosis, screening, and monitoring (1.6-fold difference; P < .001), psychosocial (2.7-fold difference; P < .01), men's health (2.1-fold difference; P < .05), and surgery (2.1-fold difference; P < .05).
Looking ahead, Maruthappu said the investigators hope to expand the scope of this study into other fields of research and across more geographic areas. However, they are aware that the entire field is becoming "increasingly active," he added. "This research is not only gaining traction amongst academics but also governmental and multinational organizations."
Limitations of the study include dependence on the accuracy of the original investment data from the funding bodies, the researchers said. They also noted that they could not access data on private-sector research funding or obtain disaggregated data from Cancer Research UK.
Maruthappu and study coauthors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.
BMJ Open. Published on May 14, 2018. Full text
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