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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Address racial bias in policing to stop carding, advocates say

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Kofi Hope was sitting in a car outside a Mississauga nightclub with a few friends trying to decide if they should brave the cold and get in line, when he says several cops suddenly surrounded them with flashlights, demanding they get out of the vehicle.

“They kept saying to us, ‘we know one of you has the record. Who has the record? Who has the record?’ ” Hope, now 35, says of the incident about 15 years ago.

No one did. After looking at all of their IDs, searching them and the car, he says police let the young men go. Hope is not sure what the officers did with his information from that night. But he says he does know he’s been stopped multiple times and he’s not the only one.

“I think most young people of colour in the GTA have had those experiences,” says Hope, a senior policy adviser at non-profit think tank the Wellesley Institute and a Rhodes Scholar.

“It’s disempowering, it’s insulting, you feel unsafe.”

A 300-plus page independent review of street checks known as “carding” that dropped on New Year’s Eve has advocates calling for urgent changes, saying arbitrary and discriminatory street checks like what Hope describes cannot be stopped without measures to address racial bias in policing.

The report from Court of Appeal Justice Michael Tulloch includes a review of the province’s 2017 regulation on carding and concluded that random street checks should be banned as they have little impact on reducing crime and have caused significant damage to racialized communities, especially among youth.

It includes recommendations to clarify when police can stop to collect identifying information outside of an active investigation — including that there should be some suspicion based on objective and credible grounds justifying an inquiry.

“It’s not news to anyone who’s been doing this work, or advocating around carding,” Hope says of the report’s conclusions.

“The issue is not about carding, the issue is about racial bias in policing ” he adds. “Carding is just one manifestation.”

There has to be better training, oversight and accountability, Hope says, because “the consequence of having even a few officers with those views is hugely detrimental.”

Staff Sgt. Valerie Graham of the Peel Regional Police told the Star in an email she’s unable to comment specifically on Hope’s encounter. She said the service follows the provincial legislation on street checks.

“Peel Regional Police has never supported random arbitrary race-based stops of any kind, and if an officer was found to participate in such a stop, they would be disciplined,” she added.

Toronto police Const. Rob Reid told the Star on Monday he and his colleagues take the report “very seriously.”

In the report, Tulloch recommended further training for both front-line and supervising police officers on why the carding regulation was instituted, how it applies and what the legal basis for police stops are. The training should also include bias awareness, he wrote.

Asante Haughton, a 33-year-old peer support leader who says he’s been stopped by police so many times he’s lost count, agrees training is key.

“Just because a bias or a prejudice is there currently doesn’t mean that it’s going to sustain itself if we work intensely against it,” he said, adding carding breeds distrust, which can get in the way of solving actual crimes.

During his teen years living near Regent Park, he says he was stopped going to school, coming home from school, even in front of his own door. He says he’s been stopped at least 25 times, even though he’s never been arrested or involved with gangs.

Haughton knows his rights but says he still gives his info to police every time he’s asked.

“In the moment there’s just this feeling of danger and this feeling of powerlessness, and being hyper vigilant about what I say, what I do. What’s my body language? What’s my posture? Am I behaving in a way that could be perceived in a way that’s resisting or combative in some way?” he says.

“Because ultimately I’m trying to avoid the escalation of a police encounter.”

The report also outlines how officers should conduct and record such interactions, including that, as the regulation requires, the individual must be informed that providing identifying information is voluntary and that the officer must offer to provide a receipt for the interaction.

Tulloch said the person should also be told the specific reason the information is being requested, that the information may be recorded and stored in a police database and that some of the information, such as the person’s religion, is being requested to help eliminate systemic racism.

The 2017 regulation bans collecting identifying information if the stop is arbitrary or based on the person being part of a racialized group. Tulloch recommended this be expanded to include socio-economic status and other prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Tulloch also recommends the data should be destroyed after five years at the most. That’s something Black Lives Matter Toronto co-founder Sandy Hudson was glad to see, but thinks it should go further.

“Five years is a long time to wait if it’s something that’s preventing you from getting a job,” she says. “Especially the retroactive stuff, can we just get rid of it? We know it’s been collected incorrectly.”

Hudson, like Hope, was happy to see Tulloch’s conclusion that random carding doesn’t serve an investigative purpose, but says it’s not news to communities who’ve been working on the issue.

“We so know this,” she says. “Right now what’s necessary is political will to actually address the racism that our communities are experiencing from the police.”

Sylvia Jones, Ontario minister of community safety and correctional services, has said in a statement the Progressive Conservative government will review Tulloch’s recommendations.

Repeated analyses by the Star of Toronto Police Service carding data have found Black people were more likely than white people to be stopped, questioned and documented in each of the city’s more than 70 patrol zones, and that the likelihood increased in areas that are predominantly white.

A report released mid-December by the Ontario Human Rights Commission into racial profiling and discrimination by Toronto police noted several instances where the Special Investigations Unit found no legal basis for the police to stop or detain Black civilians and heard from Black Torontonians about instances where they were arbitrarily stopped by police while walking or driving.

Toronto police suspended carding in 2015 and now, like all Ontario police forces, are governed by the provincial carding regulation.

Lawyer and community organizer Knia Singh, who has previously shared his experiences with carding with the Star, says he supports enhanced anti-bias training for police officers that involves members of the community who have experienced racial profiling and discrimination. He also wants to see increased oversight and stiffer penalties for police misconduct, saying there should be repercussions when an officer engages in discriminatory behaviour.

He said it is unfortunate that in 2019 resources are still having to be invested in researching these issues and undoing the damage done to communities and trust in police, rather than into crime prevention measures and positive community supports.

“The last line of defence is police officers themselves. Officers have to hold other officers to account,” Singh said. “All as we can do as a community is hope for the officers to make the right decision not to engage in practices of targeting and discrimination and report officers who do … we rely on them to keep us safe and that includes from people in the organization who pose a threat.”

With files from Jacques Gallant and Wendy Gillis

May Warren is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @maywarren11

Alyshah Hasham is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and court. Follow her on Twitter: @alysanmati

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