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Six steps to fairer funding for female scientists

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…

Women who take time off research to have children face funding obstacles when returning to the workforce. Cia de Foto

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.

CIAT International Center for Tropical Agriculture

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.

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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.

sean dreilinger

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.

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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.

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  1. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    What happened to the father?

    Is it all “women and THEIR children”?

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    1. Rene Oldenburger

      Haven't got one

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Dale, if you check the Hawke Research Institute, you find as a father you're automatically written out of the equation.

      Families now are mother and children and down the line the father gets a mention.

      This is a country with obsessed gender fanatics, good thing is, rest of the world ignores this country when it comes to these sort of issues.

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    2. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Rene Oldenburger

      There are three steps involved.

      1/ Remove the word “father” from the English language, and replace it with the word “partner”, but keep the word “mother”.

      2/ Now that the word “father” has been removed, any policies or proposed policies must be for the “mother”, as the word “partner” is rather meaningless and indefinite.

      3/ Call it “equality”.

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    3. In reply to Dale Bloom

      Comment removed by moderator.

    4. Jena Zelezny

      research for second PhD in Humanities and Social Sciences (Performance Studies/Theatre & Drama/Dramatic Literature/Visual Arts) at La Trobe University

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Impossible Dale. The law requires that the concept of 'father' remains in use because it is important when that 'father' skips out and refuses to take responsibility for his progeny. It is only recently that fathers have been required to contribute to a child's upkeep. Before say 1960 in Queensland, for instance, a male could 'father' as many children as he liked with impunity and then brag about it down the pub with his mates as an attribute of his virility.

      Of course tracing an irresponsible 'father' is difficult especially if he doesn't want to be found. Do the police help? No they don't. It is often left to a mother to hire a private investigator to track him down. Even then, it is sometimes impossible to get the 'father' to co-operate and accept responsibility.

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    5. In reply to Dale Bloom

      Comment removed by moderator.

    6. In reply to Jack Arnold

      Comment removed by moderator.

    7. In reply to Jack Arnold

      Comment removed by moderator.

  2. Paul Prociv

    ex medical academic; botanical engineer

    I sympathise with the above sentiments, and am fully aware of the additional difficulties professional women face, especially as my first (late) wife trained and worked as a medical specialist while pregnant and then raising our children. And research funding is desperately in need of modification. But there’s a very good reason why fewer women than men are to be found running research labs, and it has nothing to do with talent or ability. Running a big lab effectively is a demanding, stressful…

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    1. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Paul Prociv

      “Raising a child is a demanding, stressful, unpredictable and often frustrating responsibility”

      It is not. Children spend most of their time asleep, playing or at school.

      “And, given the competitive nature of research and its funding, it helps to have an aggressive and sociopathic personality, which is to be found more abundantly among males.”

      Statistics please.

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    2. Hugh McColl

      Geographer

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Just because you/we (apparently) know that children spend most of THEIR time asleep, playing or at school, doesn't tell us anything at all about what the parent/s raising those children are doing, thinking or feeling. If, as you inform us, child rearing is not (ie. never) demanding, stressful, unpredictable and often frustrating, it's amazing that so many people, especially men, would rather do almost anything - even stressful, demanding, unpredictable hard work than spend a few years at home raising their own children. And since you're demanding of others that they supply "statistics", how about you lead by example?

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    3. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Hugh McColl

      So much anger!

      I was just wondering where Paul got his statistics from.

      Yes, I have looked after children, and I have been in charge of the personnel in a laboratory.

      Looking after children was much, much easier.

      But I think a brainwashed attitude that men are “aggressive” and “sociopathic” could be the reason why so many do not regard fathers as a parent (unless they have to pay child support of course).

      It leads to fathers being left out, or not being considered relevant, and they become left out of policies regards parenting.

      Or they are left out of proposed policies regards parenting, such as the proposed policies in this article.

      It all becomes “women and THEIR children”

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    4. Hugh McColl

      Geographer

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Actually Dale, there was no element of "anger" at all in my response. What are you talking about?
      And I see (up the page a bit) that you and Rene have now embarked on a manhunt or something. Why can't you stick to the topic - which is about how we can change the science workplace / employment environment so that the nation can better use the resources of already trained and working women, after they have had time out to have and raise children.

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    5. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Hugh McColl

      I think you made a lot of things up regards fathers.

      Minimal research has actually been undertaken into fathers in this country.

      I think the author left out a couple of things.

      One is that about 30% of PhD’s are going to foreign students, and it is debateable how much Australia should be subsidising those students, and whether they do much for Australia.

      As stated in this paper “Looking at overseas students as PhD recipients, the figures indicate that an average of about one-quarter of the ‘effort’ by Australian universities is devoted to education of overseas students.”

      http://www.the-funneled-web.com/PDF_Documents/Dobson%20from%20AUR%2054-01.pdf

      The other thing is that more and more money seems to be going to women to subsidise them in this and that.

      Someone has to pay for it all, which is likely to be mere male.

      So leaving mere male out of policies or proposed policies, and mere male may not be wiling to keep paying for amazing woman.

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    6. Hugh McColl

      Geographer

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Dale, I made one observation about males which is that they are in a minority when it comes to halting their professional science careers in order to stay at home for a period and raise children. I don't see anything inaccurate about that although I hesitate to claim it is a statistic.
      But you seem to have an axe to grind. You either think men, or more accurately, fathers, are left out of consideration in this question and in this Conversation article, or you think that women are given too much consideration. Which is pretty awesome given that the subject is about getting more women back into the science workforce. You seem to think that is not a worthy cause, seemingly on the basis that ". . . more and more money seems to be going to women to subsidise them in this and that."
      Next thing you'll be claiming they are wrecking the joint.

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    7. In reply to Dale Bloom

      Comment removed by moderator.

    8. In reply to Dale Bloom

      Comment removed by moderator.

    9. In reply to Jack Arnold

      Comment removed by moderator.

    10. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Mark Amey

      So much abuse and name calling.

      Does not say much for the “education” system

      If men and fathers are not included in policies, then there is a distinct possibility that men and fathers will not be included in research also, and there is considerable evidence that this is already occurring, particularly in areas such as social science.

      So if men are regarded as irrelevant, then having women involved in research may mean the eventual exclusion of men.

      But men will be required to pay money of course.

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    11. In reply to Dale Bloom

      Comment removed by moderator.

  3. Marieke Burns

    Project Officer

    Some great points here, it's also important to help women/carers that have left science research to work in science support roles. I work with many women in science education and communication that have left a career in research for a more family friendly role. Many of these had promising careers ahead of them with good publications and track records. I have been trying to return to research but am not even considered for post-docs once I say that I can only work part-time. It is never said explicitly but once I mention it, the tone of the interview changes. I also feel that the longer I am out of my field, the harder it will be to get back in. Technology and techniques are changing so fast and I am already a little rusty.

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    1. Linda Hazell

      Casual Lecturer

      In reply to Marieke Burns

      I agree that gaps in a research career are a huge hurdle to getting funding as I'm struggling with return to research after family time myself. However, I believe part of the problem leading to under-utilisation of female researchers is that academic track record does not cope well with part-time work. Many more women through choice or expediency end up working part-time. I have a commitment to seeing my children get quality time from their parents (notice the plural), so I'm not ready for a 60…

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    2. Kim Jacobson

      Senior Postdoctoral Fellow in Immunology at Walter and Eliza Hall Institute

      In reply to Linda Hazell

      Thank you Marieke and Linda for your on-topic and thoughtful comments.

      I agree, part-time is still a thorny issue. The NHMRC have taken some steps to address this, in that you can now apply for grants part-time (before you could only apply full-time and then switch to part-time). Of course, if you can't get a part-time position, you can't then apply for the grant! One potential way forward is to try and set up a system like in the UK with Athena Swan. As far as I understand, Athena Swan is an…

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  4. Rene Oldenburger

    Haven't got one

    I got a novel idea for all these female scientists whose kids becomes an interruption in their careers - don't have kids, simple

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    1. Hugh McColl

      Geographer

      In reply to Rene Oldenburger

      Rene, the kids of female scientists are not so much interrupting their mothers' careers as interrupting the national supply of trained and functioning scientists. This nation needs those women back in the work force when they are ready. We have to change the recruitment environment - not so much for those women personally but for the benefit of our society. It is perfectly OK for a nation to accept/agree that it wants to 'exploit' its workforce. We send people to school, to TAFE, to university and further with all kinds of incentives because it is the national interest. Why shouldn't we go out of our way, as a society, to encourage and promote women (and others, male and female, who have reasons to leave the workforce mid-career for whatever reason) back onto their career path?

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    2. Linda Hazell

      Casual Lecturer

      In reply to Rene Oldenburger

      Just a comment back to Rene...Would you say "don't have kids" to male scientists? or are you just assuming that male parents don't spend quality time with their children?

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    3. Rene Oldenburger

      Haven't got one

      In reply to Linda Hazell

      Linda, fathers do spend an awful lot of time with their children the world over, the reality is, this so called feminist studies of families, basically never applies to the real world.

      And I haven't heard a male scientist whinging and whining about these things.

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    4. Rene Oldenburger

      Haven't got one

      In reply to Hugh McColl

      Well Hugh if that's the case and if it's that important - don't have kids, and you won't have the problem.

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    5. Hugh McColl

      Geographer

      In reply to Rene Oldenburger

      Rene, the governments you and I elect have always promoted the bearing of children and growing the national population. It's a national aspiration backed by a national campaign which, intentionally or not, you have voted for. Don't you get that?

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    6. Rene Oldenburger

      Haven't got one

      In reply to Hugh McColl

      Well Hugh, I know that, but if certain individuals claim that having children hampers their career in science, then don't have children, don't you get that?

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    7. Hugh McColl

      Geographer

      In reply to Rene Oldenburger

      Tiresome having to point it out Rene but no one here, at this site, in this conversation, has made that 'claim'. You appear to be willing to argue that point if only someone would raise it but they haven't. Which means we can stay on the topic - finding ways to re-engage women, especially, in returning to their places in the science workforce rather than stepping down to lesser career choices because of inflexibility in the current arrangements. You may think all this hassle is not worthwhile and you may have a point but nothing you have stated so far indicates that you have anything to contribute except the blunt edge of an axe. Get in the queue I reckon - it's over there where the trolls are.

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    8. Rene Oldenburger

      Haven't got one

      In reply to Hugh McColl

      I agree Hugh. It's rather tedious dealing with people who have absolutely no evidence that global warming is linked to these fires around Sydney, but still claiming there is some link based on a theory.

      So when there are no bushfires around Sydney this time next year, does that mean you'll all have been wrong in claiming it is linked

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    9. Rene Oldenburger

      Haven't got one

      In reply to Rene Oldenburger

      Hugh, wrong post, but it is rather tiresome to point out the blatant obvious

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    10. Hugh McColl

      Geographer

      In reply to Rene Oldenburger

      Wake up Rene. Whilst you have been asleep (or tirelessly correcting your own mistakes before and after you make them), the discussion has moved on. But not to the fires (you almost slept through that one too, didn't you?). You're an axe grinder Rene. The grinders are over there in that other queue. There's plenty of space in the line, plenty of juice in the engine, plenty of sandstone in the wheel. Unfortunately there's nothing to practice on in the general area so all the dills-who-think-they're-axemen…

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  5. Jack Arnold

    Director

    The simple solution appears to be ... increase research funding and ensure that 50% of funding is distributed to each recognised gender. Metrosexuals and GLT can do their own fund raising, just to be politically correct in this TA world.

    No R&D means no future prosperity, only the prospect of becoming shop-keepers for foreign innovation. [What's that? That is the Liars Party programme for science and technology?]

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