A glass ceiling remains in place for female medical research scientists in Australia. Although approximately 50% of PhD students and postdoctoral scientists are female, males run the majority of research laboratories.
Despite some reform over the past three decades, there is still an exodus of female scientists from academic research at the transitional stage between a postdoctoral researcher and laboratory head.
A major factor in this imbalance is the funding system. Although the intention of the current system is for all scientists to be treated equally, some are still being treated more equally than others.
Females who take time from their careers to give birth to and raise children do not lose their scientific abilities. To continually lose women after years of training is a waste of talent and the investment the government makes in young female scientists.
Currently, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) funding panels are required to judge the quality of an applicant “relative to opportunity”, including factoring in career disruption statements.
In these statements, applicants can detail issues that have affected their time as an “active researcher”, such as pregnancies, major illnesses and/or parental leave.
The bare minimum guideline is to extend the five-year review period of publication history according to the length of leave. This includes the full-time equivalent calculations for those who return to work part-time.
This simplistic calculation excludes a number of factors that disadvantage females who take leave. It will be essential to modify the current funding structure in order to retain more women during this fragile stage of their career.
Here are six changes to the existing funding structure that will help retain women who have had career disruptions.
1. Change annual funding deadlines. Females who are on maternity leave during funding deadlines face a tough choice: write funding applications with a newborn, or potentially be without a salary the following year.
Unfortunately, NHMRC career development fellowship and project grant deadlines are usually only a couple of weeks apart, once a year. Thus, females that are on maternity leave during “grant season” will miss out on not one, but two major funding opportunities. So although someone may take three months leave, they will have lost the chance to apply for funding for a year.
Other countries, such as the United States, are capable of administering multiple deadlines per year, thus it is not improbable for the Australian system to do likewise. At minimum, the NHMRC could separate fellowship and grant application deadlines to different times of the year.
2. Maternity leave support for project grants. Fellowships allow a maximum three-month paid extension for maternity leave. Project grants, a main source of salary support, do not.
A researcher who is the lead investigator on a grant can, however, defer their grant during maternity leave. This is an important condition for those Chief Investigators who are also the main drivers of the research. Allowing maternity leave extensions for salary would be an important addition to assist females in maintaining their careers during periods of leave.
3. Increasing grants from three- to five-year periods. The majority of grants currently have a short life cycle of three years. This pressures researchers to build their track record in a short amount of time, thus exacerbating the effect career disruptions have on funding for women.
The Coalition Government has stated that they will adopt the McKeon Review’s recommendations of increasing grants to five-year periods. This is desperately needed not only for females, but also for the stability of all research projects.
4. Increasing fellowships for senior postdocs. Funding opportunities for senior postdocs are extremely limited, and undertaking a second postdoc is becoming increasingly common in Australia.
Competition for limited funding and lab head opportunities see some scientists temporarily forced into these positions. Others enjoy leading projects but do not necessarily want to run labs.
Finally, as the transition period from postdoc to independent researcher overlaps with childbearing years, a senior postdoc position can be a temporary alternative to lab head while juggling young babies and work. Yet, most “early career” fellowship applications have a time limit of two to five years, post-PhD. This generally would only cover a first postdoc.
A 2011 column in Nature noted the waste of talented postdocs occurring due to limited funding and lab head opportunities. As a result, they called for the professionalisation of the senior postdoc position.
The problem for Australian researchers is the clear disconnect between how labs are structured and how funding is decided. Project grant budget discussions for requested salaries centre on the level of experience required to perform the research under the guidance of the lead investigator.
These discussions often result in the reduction of the requested salary from a postdoc to research assistant. Thus, postdocs who have postponed applying for lab head positions due to career disruptions are left with few funding opportunities.
One solution recommended by the McKeon Review is to create fellowships that retain senior female researchers. Another solution would be for universities and research institutes to provide funding that covers the gap between a research assistant and postdoc salary.
5. A clearer method of judging career disruptions for all components of a track record. An applicant’s track record “relative to opportunity” is a major component of both grant applications and the fellowship schemes that foster the transition from postdoc to independence.
Besides the publication history for NHMRC grants, there is no clear guideline for how to incorporate career disruptions into judging track record. Yet, a wide-ranging set of criteria is assessed in addition to publications.
This can include previous funding success, training of students, conference attendance, and in some instances, communication of science to the public. All of these can, and are, affected by career disruptions.
For example, a short leave period may overlap with yearly opportunities, such as a conference, or the beginning of a research student’s project, making it impractical to supervise a student that year.
Mothers who are still breastfeeding may forgo conferences, thus limiting their ability to establish their reputation in the field, another attribute assessed by the NHMRC. Providing funding for female researchers attending conferences to either pay for a carer at home or take the children with them, another McKeon Review recommendation, is vital.
Lastly, pregnancies and frequently sick infants can decrease the number of hours available for active research. Clearer guidelines on how to judge researchers with career disruptions, who have not had the same opportunities as other researchers, is needed.
6. Quality over quantity. Lastly, in recent years the NHMRC has shifted away from using journal metrics as a measure of quality of a publication. Unfortunately, without a good measure of impact, quantity of publications is often preferred as the main measure of track record.
Quantity over quality enforces a bias against females who continue to have reduced hours as an active researcher upon their return to work. Recently, NHMRC CEO Warwick Anderson stated that researchers would be able to detail the impact of five of their publications in the track record statement.
This is an important first step in tackling an issue that disadvantages women who have had career disruptions.
Stability for scientists
The NHMRC convened a “Women in Health Science” committee in 2012, aimed at addressing issues that affect retaining women. More than just incremental changes to the funding system are required to level the playing field.
And while this article focuses on disadvantages female scientists face, these improvements will improve stability for all scientists; something the future of research in Australia badly needs.