How inclusive is research funding? Research funding for women and underrepresented populations

Written by: Judy Mielke

Preface: As part of this year’s EuroScience Open Forum in Leiden (July 13 – 15, 2022), we, at scientifyRESEARCH, presented a poster looking at the use of funding as a strategy to promote diversity in the research workforce. Being an open research funding database, we are well placed to promote diversity funding opportunities and thereby enable a more diverse research workforce. This blog post is based on the original poster, which was shared under a CC BY-NC license; the same license conditions apply to this blog post.

Introduction: what are funders doing to promote diversity in academia?

Most of us would agree that a diverse team is better suited to solving complex challenges. The same applies to research. At the same time, academia is anything but diverse. Less than 30% of independent group leaders are women [1], Black scientists in the USA have grant success rates of around half of that of their white colleagues with similar academic achievements [2], and African scholars account for less than 1% of the world’s research output [3].

One of the ways to improve diversity in research is through initiatives at the funders’ level. After all, funders determine much of the success of a researcher’s career. Without research funding, most researchers will not remain in academia in the longer term. Funders around the world have deployed different strategies to promote diversity among their grantee pools, including [4]:

  • Diversity and inclusion statements
  • Direct outreach to minority candidates through various channels, including listservs, societies and social media
  • Optional resilience statements that enable applicants to put their achievements in context of their life situations
  • Diverse peer review panels and/or reduce bias through “blinded” peer review
  • Dedicated funding programs for underrepresented groups

Importantly, funders also note that it is important to measure the success of these initiatives with the use of demographics data as key performance indicators (KPI).

As a research funding database, we at scientifyRESEARCH, can provide further insights on dedicated funding programs for underrepresented groups from a macro level. We, therefore, sought to address the question “how inclusive is research funding” by looking at the funders around the world and asking whether they provide dedicated funding support for minority and underrepresented groups in research.

Method: a random sampling of funders in scientifyRESEARCH’s database

We randomly selected 400 funders from our research funding database. We defined funders as any organization that provides benefits to researchers, including but not limited to grants, fellowships, scholarships, awards, and prizes. We defined “diversity funding” as any type of funding or support that is exclusive to underrepresented groups or women researchers. To determine which funders had diversity funding, we scanned through the titles of their funding opportunities, including grants, scholarships, and fellowships and other types of benefits, paying particular attention to the keywords “minority”, “diversity”, “female” and “women”. If the title of any opportunity looked like it could be a diversity funding program, we investigated further by reading the details of the funding call. We also collected information on the primary location of the funder.

Results: a quarter of funders in our random sample had diversity funding

Of the 400 research funders that we sampled, 239 were based in the USA, 63 in the UK, 78 in Europe, and 20 were from other countries (Figure 1).

Of these 400 funders, 79 (20%) had funding programs specific for underrepresented populations, and 51 (13%) had dedicated funding for women researchers (Figure 2a). In contrast, 75% of funders do not use diversity funding programs to promote diversity. When we look at the data more closely according to the geographical location of the funder, two interesting trends emerge (Figure 2b):

1. Fewer funders in the UK use dedicated funding programs to promote diversity (16% versus the global average of 25%)

2. European funders’ diversity initiatives are mainly focused on women researchers (19% of funders offering special funding for women, compared to around 10% of the UK and USA)

Conclusion, caveats, and future direction: we will prioritize our promotion of diversity research funding

The data that we present here comprise a subset of the funders that we have in our research funding database. While we observe two interesting trends in the data, namely that a smaller proportion of UK funders use specific funding to promote diversity, and that the European initiatives are particularly focused on women researchers, we would need to confirm these initial observations with more comprehensive data. Also of interest is the classification of funders according to funder type (such as government funders versus private foundation) and the subject focus of the funder. Even more important would be to correlate the funding success of recipients of diversity funding in subsequent competitive funding schemes and other outcomes such as publications and patents that lead to real-world solutions.

As a research funding database helping researchers to find funding faster, we will prioritize diversity funding opportunities when publishing research funding opportunities on our website and showcase these opportunities in our diversity research funding list – why not share our diversity funding list today with your friends and colleagues, to promote better research through a more diverse research workforce?

Acknowledgment

We thank Susan Debad and Saheli Saha for helping us with data collection; Valeria Messina, Lisa Stienen and Kate Gardner for their critical input to the writing of this article.

References

[1] Women in higher education: has the female advantage put an end to gender inequalities? UNESCO Report 2021.

[2] Fund Black scientists. Cell, 2021. Vol 184 (3): 561.

[3] Africa generates less than 1% of the world’s research; data analytics can change that. Elsevier Connect. 2018.

[4] Strategies for inclusive grantmaking. Nature Medicine, 2022. Vol 28, 614.