Female scientists applying for funding from the publicly funded charity Cancer Research UK (CRUK) in London have the same chance of success as their male counterparts, but applicants from minority groups face an uphill climb Huh.
They are two important findings from the agency’s internal diversity review, which indicates a disparity between some signs of progress towards equity.
CRUK’s executive director of research and innovation, Ian Fulkes, says the review stems from ongoing efforts to better track the grantees’ demographics.
“We know that, traditionally, biomedicine has lacked diversity, particularly in the UK, but we have no idea where we stood,” he says. “This is the first time that we have accumulated enough data to actually do some analysis behind it.”
Overall, female and male researchers applying for any type of CRUK grant since 2017 had the same success rate: 28%. For members of minority ethnic groups, whose success rate was 11%, the likelihood of obtaining funding is very low.
Sophie Acton, a CRUK fellow and cancer researcher at University College London, says gender parity is a sign of progress in success rates. “Women seem to be evaluated objectively,” she says. “You have to look deeper to find the oddities.”
But the data shows a significant gender difference in the application phase. Only 31% of all CRUK funding applications came from female researchers. (Twenty-eight percent were male, and about 12% of applicants did not disclose their gender.) This difference was slightly smaller for postdocs and other junior researchers for career-development fellowships: 42% of applicants were female.
In comparison, all biomedical academic staff (a group consisting of postdoc and technicians as well as faculty members) account for about 46% and 22% of all biosciences faculty members in the United Kingdom.
The disparity persists among the winners of prestigious program awards, grants that provide up to £ 2.5 million (US $ 3.5 million) to senior researchers for up to 5 years. Since 2017, women accounted for 28% of all winners of the program awards. Minority ethnic groups were 7% members.
Foulkes says the lack of grant winners from minority ethnic groups is disturbing and difficult to explain. He notes that applications from researchers in these groups are only likely from those from white researchers who successfully pass the peer-review process.
Applicants who make it through peer review typically advance to in-person interviews, and where researchers from minority ethnic groups are at a disadvantage, he says. “Something happens at the interview stage, where white people have a higher level of success,” he says. “We need to understand what it is about.”
There could be many reasons why researchers from minority ethnic groups fall behind in the interview phase, said Lynn Asante-Asare, a medical student at the University of Leicester, UK, who earned her PhD from CRUK Cambridge Institute in 2019, where she now Is a scientist. Asante-Asare recently participated in a CRUK panel on the experiences of black researchers in the cancer field.
Some researchers from minority ethnic groups may miss out on guidance and preparation that can help them excel in interviews, Ascent-Asare says. “Those who have gone through that process can help them feel comfortable defending their research with their hands,” she says.
But Asante-Asare also suspects that some interviewees may not be prepared to give researchers from marginal backgrounds a fair chance. It is possible, she says, that some evaluators have a prejudice against those applicants.
She notes that racist attitudes were common in earlier generations of scientists, and some of those perspectives may persist even today. “We should not be afraid to say that there may still be a conscious bias,” she says.
Some evaluators may give subtle preferences to hire people who are like themselves, who say Asante-Asare. She thinks that casual trivia that often takes away from the interview, such as “What do you do for fun?” And “Where are you from?”, May put candidates from marginalized backgrounds on a volatile and uneven rung: “Those questions leave plenty of room for bias.” She suggests that interviewers should instead focus on a candidate’s ability to conduct research.
The CRUK report found that only 1% of grant applicants reported having a disability. A 2020 Study 1 found similar rates of disclosure for grant applications at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Foulkes states that it is likely that a significant number of people disclose inefficiencies in the application form. He describes a recent review committee of which he was a member, unwilling to listen to an interviewer.