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Bias against funding Canada’s female scientists revealed in study

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A new Canadian analysis in The Lancet validates complaints that the awarding of research grants is biased against female scientists.

The analysis found women are less likely to receive valuable research dollars if their grant applications are reviewed based on who the lead scientist is, rather that what the proposed project is.

The study, titled « Are gender gaps due to evaluations of the applicant or the science?« , analyzed almost 24,000 applications submitted to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) — the federal government agency that awards approximately $1 billion in science grants annually.

The study’s lead author, Holly Witteman, says CIHR created « a natural experiment » when in 2014 it established two new funding streams — the Project Grant Program, which focuses on funding « ideas with the greatest potential, » while the Foundation Grant Program funds « research leaders. »

Men and women performed similarly in Project Grants — 13.5 per cent of male applicants and 12 per cent of female applicants were successful.

But under the Foundation program — 13.9 per cent of male applicants won grants, compared to only 9.2 per cent of women.

The disparity is most striking in the field of public health, where female applicants outnumber male applicants, but men are twice as likely to win Foundation grants — 14.1 per cent vs 6.7 per cent.

Overall, grant applications from men outnumber those by women two to one.

Holly Witteman is a researcher at Laval University’s Faculty of Medicine in Quebec City. (Submitted by Holly Witteman)

The analysis took applicants’ age and field of study into account. 

« This evidence is fairly robust, » said Witteman, a researcher at Laval University’s Faculty of Medicine in Quebec City. 

« When the [grant] reviewers are told to focus on evaluating the scientists … that significantly amplifies success rates for men, » she said.

Grant awarding system broken

Neuroscientist Jennifer Raymond said the Canadian study is another indication that the research funding « system is broken and really needs to be fixed. »

Raymond is a researcher at California’s Stanford University and wrote a commentary which appears in the same edition of The Lancet.

She said female scientists might find the CIHR analysis both discouraging and vindicating.

« A lot of times women internalize and say ‘Oh it’s me, maybe, I’m not good enough, my male colleague is getting all of these awards and attention. I need to try harder,' » she told CBC News.

But Witteman’s research indicates women are being passed over. « And I think this shows that the system is biased, » Raymond said.

Raymond has also assessed grant applications for the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. equivalent of CIHR.

Getting funding can lead to more publications which can make it easier to attract good scientists to your lab, which in turn can help you do more good science and get more funding– Jennifer Raymond

« I sometimes hear comments that I wonder if they would be saying that if the applicant was a male scientist instead of a female scientist. But in any one of those cases, you can never really know what’s motivating the comment. You can really only see the bias in the statistics. »

Funding begets more funding

Gender equality has long eluded the sciences, especially at the leadership level. Raymond said funding bias plays a role in that disparity. 

« Small advantages over time can become big advantages. Getting funding can lead to more publications which can make it easier to attract good scientists to your lab, which in turn can help you do more good science and get more funding. So you know there’s all of these different levels at which these biases play out. »

Raymond said she supports a « blinded » grant application process to protect female researchers from unintended bias. 

It’s an approach increasingly adopted by recruiters and employers. When the Toronto Symphony Orchestra famously began concealing the identities of musicians during auditions in the 1980s, it transformed what was once a nearly all-male orchestra.

For research scientists early in their careers, the cumulative effect of those first grants is often more opportunities down the road.

Bias stalling innovation

Dr. Laura LaChance, a Toronto research psychiatrist and published academic who finished her residency in 2017, points out how important research is in advancing a career.

« Research is a major way that we’re kind of measured against our colleagues in terms of how productive you are and how good of a candidate you are, » said LaChance.

LaChance said career advancement aside, bias against female researchers also results in « stalling innovation in clinical care. »

She said she also worries some frustrated women may simply quit their research efforts in frustration.

Witteman, the study’s author, credits CIHR for both collaborating on her gender research and taking steps to prevent further bias once the disparity in the Foundation grant program was clearly identified. 

In a statement, CIHR said it was committed to eliminating « systemic biases against any individual or group. » The agency has developed an online course called « Unconscious Bias in Peer Review. »

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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