Lift the pace of gender equity in NHMRC grants program

Lift the pace of gender equity in NHMRC grants program

17th August, 2022

This article first appeared on The Australian website on 16 August 2022, reproduced here with permission.

Gender imbalance in medical research funding, with more men funded than women, is a historic problem in Australia.

But at last, there is hope that effective action will be taken. Our medical research community is, and has been, attending forums led by the chief executive of the National Health and Medical Research Council to discuss and address this systemic issue.

If this sounds like an ambitious project, you would be correct, but bold action is what we need. In our sector, less than one in five of the most senior academics in Australian universities and research institutes are women. To drive innovation, which is essential in research, the workforce needs to consist of people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives.

Many of the issues leading to gender disparity in science are structural and go beyond the remit of the NHMRC. However, as Australia’s largest funding body, strong changes need to start here to have a meaningful impact on our workforce.

Within research, funding is a significant driver of human behaviour. Big changes from the NHMRC will undoubtedly see improvement in the way women researchers are valued and supported.

The way forward is complex, but we believe that with consultation and reform the NHMRC will be better able to support our researchers to their maximum capacity.

The discussion paper recently delivered by the NHMRC outlines four reform options for stakeholders to consider.

We were pleased to see option four listed as “award equal total funding by chief investigator gender”. This is critical, as the only way to see more women in senior levels is fixing it at every level.

This means stopping the leaky pipeline that sees many women leave due to inflexible working arrangements, rigid funding models and low success rates. By having more women at all levels, we will see the systemic change we need.

The NHMRC has put a tight deadline on feedback, accepting comments only at the forums or via an online survey. This has been done so it can implement changes for the next round of Investigator Grants.

This is a timeline we applaud as, to date, progress has been too slow. At the pace change is currently occurring, it will take decades to see gender equality achieved in medical research.

We cannot afford to wait any longer. It is now time to accelerate gender equity in the NHMRC grant program and, in doing so, ignite broader change throughout the medical research sector.

The Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes, where I serve as president, strongly supports the NHMRC in taking deliberate actions to address the current gender disparities in funding.

Without strong action we will continue to lose too many outstanding researchers before they reach their potential. A diminished medical research workforce will leave Australia unable to respond effectively to future health threats. We need a health and medical research sector that systematically addresses biases and barriers for women, trans and gender diverse people and other under-represented groups to broaden our ideas and our science and to grow our workforce.

Dramatic change can happen, and will result in better ideas, improved health outcomes, and a healthier Australia.

Professor Kathryn North AC, President of the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes, a physician, neurologist and clinical geneticist, Director of the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.

Prof Kathryn North

This piece was originally published in The Australian.