Gender Disparity in Health Research and Torch Lighting

The comments following my prior post are starting to drift into a bit of a misconception over what the NIH is and is not doing about gender disparity in the research they fund. Some of this is my fault for a lack of clarity and for expecting readers to view Isis' original post and particularly this comment from drdrA:

There is actually an entire office at the NIH, the Office of Research on Women's Health devoted to many subjects involving women, including ensuring that research conducted and paid for by NIH adequately addresses issues of women's health, and their inclusion in biomedical and behavioral studies. see:
http://orwh.od.nih.gov/about.html

The drift is captured in this comment:

The NIH, as a leader in science funding, has a responsibility to be fair in its allocation of resources.


Further confusion from this comment:

Stock critiques are the fault of the study section members, not the NIH. The NIH's fault is allowing the study section members to so dominate the awarding of research dollars that programmatic needs suffer.

and this one:

These RFAs [Ed-commenter meant "PA"s] aren't going to make any difference unless there is set-aside money allocated and a special review panel convened. Without set-aside money these study proposals will just keep on getting crushed by the same standing study sections that are crushing them right now.

The point I think is being overlooked in the stampede is that the NIH is doing quite a bit to address the situation via Program Announcements, Requests for Applications and standard programmatic decision making vis a vis picking up grants outside of the percentile order. This is a GoodThing and should be recognized. This process results in grants being proposed and approved that would otherwise not have been funded. Some of the investigators involved indeed later sustain a more comprehensive program which includes sex comparisons in their usual research. Some of these initiatives essentially launch new careers of investigators with an existing background in sex comparison research which is a huge leverage of a research program with a single grant.
My point is that we can do better. One of the things we could do better is to nudge the systematic structures around a little bit so that Program intervention is less necessary.
S. Rivlin observed:

I guess that playing the blame game on who's responsible for lack of studies on and funding for sex differences will solve nothing. It requires real actions by those who care about fairness and equality and should be approached as any other social issue

Although he was recommending a sustained political barrage, I take this as putting a fine point on one of my intentions with the post. Which was to encourage investigators to go ahead and risk adding that sex-comparison Aim now and again to their proposals. To get those of you on study section or hiring/promotions committees to just take that second thought when evaluating a proposal or applicant. In short to use the importance of sex-comparison research as a counter to StockCritique type failings in your analysis.

52 responses so far

  • Becca says:

    This is how cynical all this "how to play the game stuff" has made me...
    I don't see why people don't add sex differences into their first round (doomed to fail) application, then kick it out for their second round of applications to show they have responded to the inevitable barage of "too ambitious" StockCritques (side note- my PI laughed when I described a grant he wanted to doom that way), and then actually do the research anyway once they've been funded.
    Just get her done.

  • BikeMonkey says:

    Becca..umm...do you have access to my eRA Commons account?????!!!!!!

  • S. Rivlin says:

    The more I read posts and comments on this blog, the more my fears are realized that science today is really a business, the university is the corporation and the taxpayer (NIH) is, of course, the consumer. Too many corporations are competing for a dwindling sum of money the consumer has. These corporations are fighting among themselves for that money by wooing those who have track record in making and selling their product to the consumer, like Toyota and Honda vs GM and Ford.
    I wonder when mine or your university will beg for a bailout.

  • science today is really a business, the university is the corporation and the taxpayer (NIH) is, of course, the consumer.
    At the risk of derailing this post ... this is exactly why I was excited by an interview on NPR last week [note the shameless plug for own blog] about the urgent need for investment in new, risky and innovative research. Funding research without regard for the effects of gender is shortsighted but gives the biggest bang for the NIH's buck. Until we get away from this mindset, us gals are going to be forgotten in research ... on the flipside though, we're still going to live longer.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    PiT,
    As I have said before in a comment on another post, the university must go back to fund its own researchers. The big boys, those universities with the fattest edowment funds, will have to start showing the way. Most universities today have the apparatus to raise large sums of money, whether it is for their endowmwnt funds, athletic departments or new buildings. It is time for them to financially supported their own research. Most of the research done today is predictable and mainly outcome-oriented, which greatly hinders revolutionary discoveries. How could one write a grant proposal aiming at discovering something new? Unfortunately, almost 50% of the federal funds awarded to research universities today are used to hire administrative personnel (the business part of the university). Very little money is spent by the research institution on its own research projects. Maybe if the NIH and NSF will begin to require universities to provide matching funds (dollar per dollar) for each grant awarded, we will see scientific research with unpredictable outcome, but greater rewards in the long run.

  • cashmoney says:

    why not just cut the universities out of the picture all together Sol and just expand the concept of intramural research? plant a research campus at the four corners of the country, and a few more along the coastlines and borders. sprinkle 6-8 across flyover land and call it a day...

  • Sol: I agree with you to some extent, but requiring universities to fund their own research still won't improve the funding situation for risky projects ... with a university-based system, it is likely that there would be less peer review, more of the "old white men funding old white men" issue and substantially more of the "that's not the type of research we do here" type of mantra.
    I don't have an answer or any suggestions to how this situation could be addressed or resolved, but something needs to be done. Maybe the incoming administration might have some ideas ...

  • S. Rivlin says:

    PiT,
    The more money universities spend on research (salaries for investigators, postdocs and technicians + supplies), the more NIH money available for gender disparity studies and outcome driven studies. Most universities already have peer review committees for proposals by faculty members who apply for in-home, small grants ($10,000-$50,000) aimed at producing preliminary data for extramural future grant applications. Thus, the mechanism for reviewing and directing research projects at the university level already exists.

  • whimple says:

    It'd be dead simple to implement. The NIH just has to declare they won't provide any salary dollars for PIs. I estimate this frees up about $1B per year. Wait... is this what they mean by pulling support for soft-money positions?

  • Stephanie Z says:

    I could just threaten to keep hurting the brains of the study sections until they behave.

  • Becca says:

    1) @BikeMonkey- Woohoo! I must have psychic powers and/or the ability to understand PI motivation (same difference, right?).
    Faculty position please! *makes Colbert grasping hand gesture*
    2) @nobody in particular. SCORE! I have singlehandedly made S. Rivlin despair for the future of science Yet Again. Oh wait, that's not hard. Still counting it as a success though.
    3) @ Stephanie Z- wtfomgbbqeleventy*insert brain-hurt internet meme explosion here*.

  • juniorprof says:

    wtfomgbbqeleventy
    Barbeque?

  • GeezerProf says:

    them kids and their lingo, I tell ya.
    (get offa my lawn)

  • Stephanie Z says:

    Becca, what does a vegetarian barbeque? I mean, with sauce. And don't worry, I'm sure you'll be able to erase the images from your memory in another 10-12 years.

  • zayıflama says:

    It is time for them to financially supported their own research. Most of the research done today is predictable and mainly outcome-oriented, which greatly hinders revolutionary discoveries.

  • Re whimple's suggestion of asking institutions to pull the weight of salary support for PIs, this might be accomplished without hurting soft-money faculty if NIH refused to cover salaries just for tenured faculty. It wouldn't be a billion bucks but it might help more grants get funded.
    What think the peanut gallery?

  • this might be accomplished without hurting soft-money faculty if NIH refused to cover salaries just for tenured faculty. It wouldn't be a billion bucks but it might help more grants get funded.
    Wouldn't this make the tenure process even more difficult/impossible for non-tenured (ie junior) faculty? And who's to say this would help increase funding for new/early-career researchers? It might just increase the pot of money available for already-established researchers to continue doing their already-established research. Would this change the current tendency to fund primarily outcome-driven research?

  • DSKS says:

    "Wouldn't this make the tenure process even more difficult/impossible for non-tenured (ie junior) faculty?"
    Unless tenure is consigned to history, and universities are given the ability to hire and fire on the basis of performance/productivity/funding &c. I'm not advocating for that, btw, but I could see that being a bit easier to swallow for the bean counters inre: taking on the salary burden of their research faculty completely.

  • Becca says:

    re:threadjack
    @Juniorprof- Yes. Barbeque. It's like lolercoaster.
    @Geezerprof- It's on. Let's see your decrepit old legs outrun my JohnDeere.
    @Stephanie Z-Interestly, "vegetarian BBQ" i-feel-lucky-Google led to "tequila flavored portabellos". But with sauce? Morningstar riblets.
    re:Peanut Gallary
    In Abel's world, does "tenure" != "soft money"?
    Also, MEH. It's more difficult to think creatively when is excessively strapped for cash. That is a real problem for the biomedical research enterprise... but it is not the same issue as "outcome driven research". Personally, I'm all about keeping some outcomes in mind. Innate immunity is a facinatingly complex regulatory network. But I don't expect people to fund me unless I say "I want to cure malaria!"
    Do people think it's always harder to discover supercool totally profound Truths about Nature while attempting to cure a disease or alleviate human suffering? If so, I believe NSF is through door #2...

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Becca,
    So your creativity grows with the money? This is usually how thieves operate 😉

  • Becca says:

    S. Rivlin-Last I checked, neurons use glucose (ok, so the whole ketone bodies thing does kick in, but it's still an energy-requiring system). Last time I checked, obtaining glucose requires money.
    Thinking at a high level, perhaps particularly creatively, is also greatly facilitated by cutting down stress for unnecessary reasons (like worrying over being able to obtain food/shelter).
    Doctoral students don't even blame poor advising as often as financial difficulties, when describing obstacles in completing their degree. And, considering how many CluelessStudents are out there doing whiny-little-lazy-bitch blogging, that's an awful lot of financial difficulties.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Becca,
    I let you in on a few secrets regarding brain energy metabolism:
    1. Neurons utilize lactate as well as glucose.
    2. Glucose, when given at large quantities (hyperglycemia) actually induces release of a stress hormone (cortisol).
    3. Glucose alone cannot increase the rate of mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation above the rate-limiting maximal glycolytic flux; lactate, in contrast, can push the rate of oxidative phosphorylation to levels much higher than glucose can, since it does not requires any investment of ATP to become a mitochondrial substrate for oxidatve phosphorylation. It only needs lactate dehydrogenase (LDH1), found in the mitochondrial membrane, to convert it to pyruvate, the substrate of the tricarboxylic acid cycle (TCA). Every mole of lactate produced 17 moles of ATP.

  • And, considering how many CluelessStudents are out there doing whiny-little-lazy-bitch blogging, that's an awful lot of financial difficulties.

    Would you care to elaborate on this Becca before I feel the need to call "bullshit?"

    #22Becca,
    I let you in on a few secrets regarding brain energy metabolism:
    1. Neurons utilize lactate as well as glucose.
    2. Glucose, when given at large quantities (hyperglycemia) actually induces release of a stress hormone (cortisol).
    3. Glucose alone cannot increase the rate of mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation above the rate-limiting maximal glycolytic flux; lactate, in contrast, can push the rate of oxidative phosphorylation to levels much higher than glucose can, since it does not requires any investment of ATP to become a mitochondrial substrate for oxidatve phosphorylation. It only needs lactate dehydrogenase (LDH1), found in the mitochondrial membrane, to convert it to pyruvate, the substrate of the tricarboxylic acid cycle (TCA). Every mole of lactate produced 17 moles of ATP.

    Stop spanking a dead monkey, Sol.

  • Becca says:

    Oh dearest Dr. Isis,
    It has been my observation that a number of grad students use their blogs for ranting about their CluelessAdvisors. This inevitably provokes an outcry among professors saying how much worse it is to have to deal with CluelessStudents. It provokes a particularly spirited outcry among folks of S. Rivlin's "grad students are spoiled whiners who aren't willing to work" ilk. I was merely attempting to find a reference point on the scale of grad student suffering that would be familiar to S. Rivlin.
    tldr: aye, bullshit. One must consider one's audience.
    *googlygoogle*
    Curse you S. Rivlin!!!
    You understand, the fact you are right doesn't bug me. It's that you appear to be right because things have actually changed since I took that class in grad school (http://www.nature.com/jcbfm/webfocus/brainmet_lactate/index.html). Dude. I need to frickin graduate already or something. I've been here way too long if the dogma is changing on me like that.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Becca,
    Maybe your problem is that you rely on whatever you absorbed in grad school without continuously updating your general knowledge about the topics on which you are commenting.

  • Oh dearest Dr. Isis,
    It has been my observation that a number of grad students use their blogs for ranting about their CluelessAdvisors. This inevitably provokes an outcry among professors saying how much worse it is to have to deal with CluelessStudents. It provokes a particularly spirited outcry among folks of S. Rivlin's "grad students are spoiled whiners who aren't willing to work" ilk. I was merely attempting to find a reference point on the scale of grad student suffering that would be familiar to S. Rivlin.

    You know, I don't know that it's whining. I think that, in some cases, there is a disparity between the needs of the PI and the needs of the trainee and that there can be a huge amount of discomfort generated when each does not have an understanding of the others needs and goals. That's not whining. That's frustration with cause, perhaps directed into an environment where one believes they can express frustration safely.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Isis, sssshhhhhh! Someone might think there is a constructive purpose to this blog.

  • Isis, sssshhhhhh! Someone might think there is a constructive purpose to this blog.

    I love you, DrugMonkey. Will yoou marry me?
    There. Now Dr. Isis has brought us back to the realm of the non-constructive.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Isis,
    I've said it before and I'll say it again, American students (undergraduate and graduate) and postdocs are spoiled whiners. Many of them have no work ethics, no self discipline and no real plan and direction of how and where to go in their future. This is in contrast to the majority of foreign students and postdocs who come to this country and over-achieve significantly compared to their American counterparts. Most foreigners experienced tougher hardships than any American student, they originate from families where there is greater respect to the parents and the elderly, and where the university is a place you go to study, not to party.

  • Sol, you're wrong. And later, after I am done doing the actual work I need to accomplish, I am sure I will blog about why you are wrong.
    The point is, though, we need to get over calling grad students whiners and outline for them expectations for success. Otherwise, isn't it just whining about whining? And isn't that worse?

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Isis,
    All the traits I mentioned in my previous comment are traits that youngsters acquire at home, long before they become undergraduate and graduate students. The majority of American children do not acquire them because their home's structure does not exist.
    I am sure that at yours, as is the case in most American universities today, you can easily distinguish between the hard-working, over-achieving Chinese students and the spoiled, whining American ones. Moreover, the results of this hard work can be seen in the list of authors on many publications in scientific journals of high IF.

  • Shorter Sol "Delusional Asshole" Rivlin:
    "Everyone sucks except for me."

  • Becca says:

    @Dr. Isis- on the serious note, I couldn't agree with you more.
    On the silly note, I could not disagree with you more...you can't marry DM! I'd be left out!
    I leave it to an exercise to the reader as to whether that is because:
    A) I want to marry Dr. Isis
    or
    B) I want to marry DrugMonkey
    @ S. Rivlin- I see no shame in admitting that there are people on this blog with superior general knowledge of physiology to me. In fact, I am here to learn from them and appreciate your comment on that level.
    Also, of course you can tell the difference between the Chinese students and myself. Their tones are much better when we speak Hanyu.
    *commense smackdown*
    Also, you are just a dried up bitter husk of a masochistic workaholic who worked your ass off, pretending your self-denial was a badge of honor, and offering yourself and your happiness as a sacrifice upon the alter of "the Proper Way of Science". Then, you (fickle little bitch that you are) decided to totally give up on science because the idea of balancing a wholistic, well-rounded life and academic science scared you shitless. And it took your damn brother dying for you to figure out that you were being a selfish dick.
    You're just horrifed to think that people out there might be doing great science and having a kickass time doing it, while maintaining truly deep and valuble relationships with their friends and families... because you swallowed the Koolaid and became convinced that these were mutually incompatible goals.
    Yeah, I'm really worried that you might think I'm lazy because I flipantly restated an outdated dogma. Which you then proceeded to smack down because you knew damn well I was right about grad student motivation issues.
    Also, you're just mean to me because I don't want to marry you.
    */fin*

  • Stephanie Z says:

    Sol, with all due respect (and not one drop more), you're doing a hell of a lot of seeing what you want to see. How many of these "whiny" student/postdoc bloggers ever talk about partying, aside from networking at a conference?
    I've heard plenty of them talk about all that they're expected to do, but never one of them say anything except that they were doing it, sleep-deprived as they are. That's an accurate picture of their lives, not whining. You may prefer silent stoicism (in others, obviously), but that's your personal preference, not a measure of anyone else's worth.
    I'm not going to bother to address your comparison of foreign students to American students who choose not to study abroad. However, I certainly hope your assessment of the nationality of authors on high-IF journals is based on real data. I'd hate to think you were making broad statements based on how often you see "foreign" names.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    you can nip this marriage crap in the bud folks. I know it will cause gasps of astonishment (i wonder at my fortune near-daily) but I am truly, in all honesty and objectivity, married to a domestic and laboratory goddess who puts all others to shame. no shit.
    in other news I should have a post up to let you go at each other with the nativist/immigrant rants soon....

  • I am truly, in all honesty and objectivity, married to a domestic and laboratory goddess who puts all others to shame. no shit.

    Them's fighin' words, MonkeyBoy.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Becca, I want to apologize for exposing your ignorance, which, of course, made you so mad that you decided to resort to CPP's vulgarity.
    Stephanie, denial on your part will not change the facts. Open any volume of Science or Nature prior to 1990, count the number of Chinese authors and then do the same with any volume after 2000.
    As to partying, maybe grad students party somewhat less, but the partying of undergrads is out of hand. In most countries a BA or BSc degree can be achieved in three years, not because they learn less, but because they not wasting their time drowning in alcohol.
    Oh, and I almost forgot, CPP, ...and you!

  • juniorprof says:

    In most countries a BA or BSc degree can be achieved in three years, not because they learn less, but because they not wasting their time drowning in alcohol.
    Bullshit! They are not required to fulfill a complete liberal arts education in most cases, hence they finish faster.

  • cashmoney says:

    They are not required to fulfill a complete liberal arts education in most cases, hence they finish faster.
    and of course, drowning in alcohol, rah-rahing your football team and spending every winter weekend at the ski slopes are essential parts of a liberal arts education. in most cases.

  • Stephanie Z says:

    Let's not forget the part where students in the U.S. don't have their education paid for. Having to transfer to a less-expensive school lost me about half a year. I could maybe have made it up, but not while I was working half time.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    cashmoney, you forget spring breaks in Florida.
    Junior, the complete liberal arts education in most countries is done with in high school. Seriously.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Stephanie,
    Could you name some countries where students do not have to pay for their higher education?

  • Becca says:

    Oh it's ON...
    S. Rivlin- I resortd to vulgarity because CPP was clearly not up to the task today.
    Also, I must call bullshit on your Chinese names game.
    Compare the current issue of Science and v.235:4785 (9 January 1987). I may not be 100% right on my assignment of all names Chinese, but those so many more in the old issue that even if I'm wrong on a couple it's still obvious.
    Also, during the period many of the current Chinese scientists were educated in China, higher education tuition was free.
    Another country that appears to be somewhat successful in producing scientists, Germany, offers student living allowances such that people are essentially paid to go to university. Of course, you might have to hide from the Bundeswehr...
    You would know these things, S. Rivlin, if you had a proper liberal arts education and worked on expanding your general knowledge beyond what you were expected to absorb in graduate school.

  • Cashmoney says:

    Roadtrip! Club sports!
    Ahhhh.... Bright college days, Sol, good times.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Becca,
    I hope that the coming weekend will help you get over the hurt such that you hopefully stop whining.
    As to Chinese scientists: You are absolutely correct that until the 1980s very few of them came to the US for their education and their scientific work was not published in western scientific journals. And this is exactly my point; once they begun coming to this country, their hard work and over-achievement attitude have made them the most successful immigrnat group in American science today.
    About free tuition in Communist China universities, I think that does not count.

  • DSKS says:

    Having done my grad work in the UK, and my postdoc in the US, I've really not been led to believe that the American scientific yoof of today is any whinier than the British and French colleagues I've worked with. Although, arguably they should be. In many cases Americans are going into grad programs in debt up to their eye-balls and with the expectation of doing and extra year or two of exams that their foreign competitors are not generally required to do (and, to be honest, shouldn't have to do if the undergraduate program they just came out of was actually worth paying for).
    The comparison with workers from certain other nations is a provocation to a long, and likely heated discussion on the cultural norms and work ethic in science from nation to nation (although effort would have to be taken to avoid overgeneralisation). Yes, some visiting researchers (and students) can be said to have a more productive work ethic. But sometimes, that attitude comes with some cultural baggage that doesn't - or shouldn't - sit well with progressive westerners. There's no need to cite an anecdote on that score; everybody in academia who has worked with foreign students or colleagues will likely have one to share.

  • Cashmoney says:

    Dsks, you mean like sending infants back home with Gramma for two years? That kinda thing?

  • Becca says:

    S. Rivlin- why would I be hurt? I just proved you wrong on a factual challenge you yourself put forth.
    Indeed, the only thing you've thus far managed to be right about was a total tangent to the field of science you are (supposedly) an expert in (not exactly shocking).
    Ya know, I think there's a huge selection bias you're introducing. Obviously the only grad students who would have been willing to work with you are either 1) lazy asshats who had no where else to go or 2) non-native English speakers who are not less suceptible to the cerebral hemmoraging that would result follow trying too hard to follow your verbal "logic" where you utterly fail to make a single substantial claim that can actually be backed up by data.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Becca,
    Here you are talking about lack of data in support of my claims, while you yourself make claims about me as you go without any data.
    I think I did hurt your feelings. For that I apologize, again.

  • becca says:

    meta commentary:
    short answer: you started it!
    slightly longer answer: I'm happy to spat in whatever style you please, but it does seem like you can't play consistently by any set of rules.
    Actual retort:
    you are my data

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