Fund Science on the Basis of Scientists‘ Work, Not Their Identity

Fund Science on the Basis of Scientists‘ Work, Not Their Identity

Lawrence M. Krauss
Lawrence M. Krauss
5 min read

The Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada, that country’s major scientific funding organization, is developing a comprehensive research plan, called NSERC 2030, to guide its priorities over the next decade. In the current phase, NSERC is engaging with external stakeholders through a series of discussion papers aimed at finding new ways to support researchers and enhance the impact of their work. Predictably, there is a heavy focus on diversity, with stakeholders being asked to address the following two “discussion questions”:

Participation rates by women, visible minorities and racialized groups vary significantly across programs … and across disciplines. Should NSERC explore specific measures to address these diversity gaps? Should special programs be targeted exclusively to certain underrepresented groups to provide better opportunities?
Determining fair access to research support involves ensuring parity between the proportion of applicants from an identity group and the proportion of awards to applicants from that group. To accelerate this process, should NSERC explore other equity measures, such as dedicated funding to institutions, to career stages, or to identity groups? Should it explore setting targets and/or equalizing outcomes?

The standard of “fair access” that NSERC planners set out here implies a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between mandating equality of opportunity—which is desirable—and mandating equality of outcome. The latter would lead to overt identity-based discrimination against members of groups whose applications, in some cases, would otherwise be successful under a purely merit-based approach. That a major research-funding agency is promoting such a misunderstanding in regard to policy formulation is an issue of some concern.

While Canadian science marches down this misguided road, Australian science is under attack on a related front: Earlier this month, the journal Nature ran an article with the headline “Outcry as men win outsize share of Australian medical-research funding,” approvingly describing a petition calling for the imposition of gender quotas to govern the awarding of “investigator grants” by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), Australia’s principle medical-research funding body. The petition, which has been signed by about 7,000 Australians, was created by two female biology researchers who’d outlined the statistical basis of their complaint in a report for the Australian news site Women’s Agenda. “Although an equivalent number of grant applications were received from female and male researchers,” wrote Professor Louise Purton and Dr. Jessica Borger, “men were disproportionately awarded a staggering 23% more grants, corresponding to an extra $95-million in funding” (all figures in $AUS).

The available numbers don’t tell us if there was any evidence of systemic bias in the underlying grant criteria, or in the evaluation of applications against those criteria. However, they do provide information that helps explain the sex-based discrepancies at play—although not in a way that advances Prof. Purton and Dr. Borger’s argument.

A bar chart included in a previous Nature article on this subject shows the total value of grants awarded to men and women in 2019, categorized by seniority quintile. In the first (most junior) quintile, women actually were awarded more grant money than men got. In the second quintile, men had a slight edge. This edge grew substantially in the third and fourth quintiles, leading up to a massive difference in the fifth (i.e., most senior) quintile, which shows the most senior male scientists being awarded $81 million, compared to just $21 million for the most senior female scientists. This means that, of the money going to senior scientists, women got just over 20 percent.

Male (red) vs. Female (green) Investigator Grant recipients in 2019, by applicant seniority

The latest Nature article concludes with a quote from Teresa Woodruff, an obstetrician and advocate for women in science at Northwestern University. She describes the data as a wake-up call to funders, who now should “address the issues.” But the Nature analysis glides over one of the more obvious issues lying in plain sight: As the 2019 article showed, there tends to be fewer senior women (just 17 in 2019) applying for grants, as compared to senior men (75). In 2021, the numbers were similar: According to Nature, “at the most senior level … there were about four times more male than female applicants”—an 80/20 male-female applicant split that corresponds almost exactly to the $81 million/$21 million split in awarded 2021 grants.

This pattern has an obvious explanation: There are simply more men than women in the senior ranks of Australia’s health and medical researchers—a fact that shouldn’t surprise anyone, since most scientific fields were, until just a few decades ago, almost entirely dominated by men. Thankfully, this era is over, and Australia’s medical schools achieved gender parity in admissions a long time ago. Thus, one might expect that the funding of male and female medical researchers at the junior level would be roughly even, while being progressively more skewed toward men among older generations—which is exactly what the data reported by Nature shows to be the case.

Unfortunately, many activists would prefer to force a quick fix through gender quotas, a policy which would assign money on the basis of identity, not research quality. Signatories of the “Fund women in STEM equitably” petition, for instance,

are calling on the to improve equity for women in STEMM [Science Technology Engineering Maths and Medicine] by allocating the same amount of funding to each gender (including a separate pot for non-binary applicants) and to set quotas at each of the Investigator Grant (fellowship) levels for each gender to ensure that all academic levels are supported with equity.

The opportunity for abuse and discrimination within such a system is obvious (even putting aside the somewhat strange proposal that extra money be put aside for individuals who claim to be “non-binary”). And so it is not clear that such a system would be warranted, even if the existence of discrimination had been proved. But no such proof has been offered. Rather, the outcry seems to be based on an incomplete and arguably misleading presentation of the available data.

Notably, Nature glosses over the fact that, as NHMRC CEO Anne Kelso points out, funding rates for men and women are nearly equal in regard to the NHMRC’s entire $1.1 billion funding budget as a whole, of which the $398 million earmarked for investigator grants (the subject of the petition and the Nature article based on it) is but one component. This overall pattern is hardly compatible with the suggestion that the NHMRC is a hive of sexism. (Note that of its CEO, General Manager, and three executive directors, only one is a man.) Nor is it compatible with the broad accusations against NHMRC repeated by Nature, such as the claim by quota advocate Megan Head, an evolutionary biologist at the Australian National University in Canberra, to the effect that “Australia has a terrible record with gender equity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

We have gone down this road before, when strict quotas were placed on Jewish scientists within my own academic sphere, physics, as a means of excluding Jews (including very nearly, future Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman) from US graduate schools. Today, we properly regard such policies as shameful, both for discriminating against individual human beings and for misdirecting society’s scientific resources. Medical science is a life-and-death endeavor, and decisions about how that science should be funded must be based on the quality of research proposals, not the skin color or sex of those submitting them.

Science / TechAffirmative ActionDiversity

Lawrence M. Krauss

Lawrence M. Krauss, a theoretical physicist and author, is President of The Origins Project Foundation, and host of The Origins Podcast. His most recent book is The Physics of Climate Change.