News | 30 August 2016

U.S. Audit of Gender Bias in Research Funding Hits Data Roadblock

Gender bias in research funding is often cited as one potential factor holding women back from upward movement in STEM careers. In response to concerns about the existence of such a bias in federal research funding in the U.S., three Congresswomen - Rep. Louise Slaughter, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, and Rep. Rosa DeLauro - asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2013 to perform an audit of research funding at six of the country's largest funding agencies: the National Science Foundation (NSF); Department of Health and Human Services (HHS); Department of Defense (DOD); Department of Energy (DOE); Department of Agriculture and National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA). The GAO planned to produce an interim report on how the agencies collect data and what factors influence the choice of grant recipients, followed by a full-length report identifying factors that may contribute to the gender bias as well as assessing compliance with gender nondiscrimination policies at federally-funded universities, and providing a set of recommendations for agencies to reduce the gender bias.

Preliminary results from NSF, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) under HHS, and the Department of Agriculture showed little evidence of gender bias, with a slight advantage to women at NSF and to men at NIH in the rate of successful grant awards. No conclusions could be drawn from data collected by the other three agencies in the audit, however--because there was no data. The investigators found that DOD, DOE and NASA - which collectively award over $3 billion - do not collect demographic information on the recipients of grant applicants or awardees.

The three agencies who do not collect data reported that they did not collect demographic data on researchers either because they did not have any use for it, or because they were unsure of the legality of collecting such data. In a letter sent 8 April to the heads of DOD, DOE and NASA, Representatives Slaughter, Johnson and DeLauro stress the importance of collecting gender-disaggregated data and put to rest the notion of any prohibitions against it, urging the agencies to begin collecting this data as a matter of taxpayer interest.