A simple change would help the NIH grant process contribute less to the leaky pipeline

I was alerted to an article published in The New York Times on "Keeping Women in Science on a Tenure Track" by dr becca and drdrA. Don't worry, it was written by a man so you can take it seriously and all. Heh. Actually, this is just a distillation of an interesting report entitled “Keeping Women in the Science Pipeline,”. From the NYT bit:

women Ph.D.’s with young children are 27 percent less likely than men with children to receive tenure after entering a tenure-track job in the sciences. The report notes that single women without young children are roughly as successful as married men with children in attaining tenure-track jobs.

According to the report, plans to have children affect women postdoctoral scholars more than their male counterparts. Women who had children after becoming postdoctoral scholars in the University of California system were twice as likely as their male counterparts to shift their career goals away from being professors with a research emphasis — a 41 percent shift for women versus 20 percent for men.

Go read, there's more.

Anyway, I have a new favorite plan to help with this little problem, thanks to Cath of VWXYNot who commented:

The CIHR (Canadian equivalent of the NIH) and some of our other funding agencies have CV formats that include a dedicated “Interruptions and Delays” section.

This is brilliant! The NIH needs to adopt this right away as a required line on their Biosketch. Don't worry, they have several other line items that are supposed to be included even if the response is Not Applicable. The point is to make it default and a part of every application so that the applications of those who feel it necessary to use it will not stick out as unusual.

There are a number of upsides. First, it will be a subtle and insidious statement that it is expected that NIH applicants will have had delays in their career progress or scientific projects due to certain personal and family-related factors. The CIHR does specify a number of obvious scenarios beyond just childbearing, see Cath's comment. Expected and therefore accepted. From the point of view of the funding agency. And, as we've noted on occasion, the NIH reviewer is supposed to be working for the NIH to help with their priorities. Not the reviewer's personal and idiosyncratic viewpoints, but to help with the job that is expected of them by the NIH. They don't always do this, of course, but having expectations laid out relatively explicitly can't but help.

The second upside is a bit more specific. My usual advice for these types of delays is that it is dangerous to bring it up in your application before anyone has criticized you for it. Since in the old days you got two rounds of revision and at least one round of revision was pretty much necessary, no biggie. You submit your app, take your criticisms for apparent delays (if any, they are not inevitable) and come back with your response in the revised application. As always, the point is to explain, not to excuse. The advocating reviewer can then use your supplied reason to beat back criticism from anyone else. Yes I have seen this work very favorably on more than one occasion. Something along the lines of "My productivity was reduced in the past five years because I bore two children in that interval" or similar as a response to a criticism about productivity. Trouble is, now that we're down to a single revision and ICs are steepening the paylines for even the A1 revision, this isn't a great strategy anymore. I think you have to face it head on in the original application if you judge your "Delay" to be so obvious as to entail a good chance of drawing reviewer fire.

Wouldn't it be nice if there was a nice custom made section (which didn't take away from your precious 12 pages) for this?

I think so.

And I would think that on a NIH-wide basis it would result in a few more meritorious grants being funded despite the apparent "Delay" introduced by a woman PI bearing children, a PI of either sex undergoing a health crisis or caring for a sick family member...or even a lab experiencing a natural disaster.
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Erratum: the original version mistakenly referenced the Chronicle of Higher Ed as the source rather than the NYT.

12 responses so far

  • Zeeba says:

    I think acknowledging the humanity of the people conducting science in this country, be it graduate students, post-docs, or professors would benefit everyone.

  • becca says:

    Great. Also, while we're asking for the moon, can we get POs to keep an eye on written critiques of grants and BOOT ANYONE who goes all St. Kern on this and dings people for what they write here (no matter how relevant the explanation)?

  • drugmonkey says:

    No, becca, we cannot. And this is hardly asking for the "moon".

  • gerty-z says:

    This really does seem like an excellent idea. I second Cath's "Yay, Canada!"

  • becca says:

    If 'let's be like canada' worked, we'd have fixed healthcare ages ago. Canada = the moon. Except colder. And with more curling. And two more people.

  • FrauTech says:

    I think the commenter of the NY Times piece who mentions the root of the problem is an oversupply of PhDs in science is correct. Yes these changes would be nice, all these things would be nice, but why is private industry (say for working professionals, not PhDs necessarily) tend to pay better and have better benefits than academia? Is it because it's "better"? No, it's because it doesn't have a guaranteed supply of way too many PhDs willing to fill its ranks so it has to concede some benefits to the worker. And even then, corporate America is not a great place to be. But the start would be to force caps on graduate student and PhD admissions in this country (or no stipends/scholarships for all those people who want to get their PhD "just because" and are "okay with not getting a job as a professor"). If the field was less competitive, you might see less room for sexist policies.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    You overestimate the degree to which the chumps who would theoretically be dropped under your scenario compete with you at present....

  • Anon says:

    or no stipends/scholarships for all those people who want to get their PhD “just because” and are “okay with not getting a job as a professor”

    Fill in the blank exercise:

    A system where R1 professors devote their primary energy to preparing students for R1 professor jobs will be different from the current system because _______________.

  • drugmonkey says:

    and the NIH responds!!!!

    http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-11-045.html

    Beginning with applications submitted for the May 25, 2011 and subsequent receipt dates, the biosketch instructions will include a modification of the personal statement section to remind applicants that they can provide a description of personal issues that may have reduced productivity.

  • [...] of an interesting report entitled “Keeping Women in the Science Pipeline,”, I felt compelled to post this on Jan 5: The NIH needs to adopt [the Canadian section on Interruptions] right away as a required line on [...]

  • [...] the impression that we academics are avoiding discussing the pipeline problem in science. No, not the part that leaks women, nor the part that screens out underrepresented [...]

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