SFI releases data on gender balance in funding after hard questions raised

23 Nov 2018

While women represent fewer applications and lower funding numbers, SFI maintains that it is working toward balance in funding. Image: © pogonici/Stock.adobe.com

SFI reveals breakdown of figures on funding applications and awards amid criticism of gender disparity.

A report and data released today (23 November) by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) provide an insight into the gender balance of the State agency’s funding.

The analysis from the SFI research policy team is based on application submission and success rates since 2011, excluding programmes for which SFI contributes part of the funding but does not solicit or process the applications (such as programmes managed by the Wellcome Trust, the Royal Society etc).

The headline figures from the report reveal that:

  • The overall success rate of applicants across SFI’s portfolio of awards since 2011 is 30pc
  • 75pc of all applications were from men
  • The success rate of applicants to SFI research centres is 33pc for women and 25pc for men
  • On average, successful women researchers apply for lower funding amounts and receive smaller awards
  • Five out of 12 of SFI’s research centres have reached or are within 2pc of a target 40pc gender balance on their teams

The summary report from SFI also acknowledges a “significant” gender imbalance among the principal or lead investigator positions within its research centres. A method of redressing this requires that those centres develop a gender action plan in order to secure phase two funding. Those awarded phase two funding will then have to set gender performance targets, which will be assessed every six months.

Bubbling controversy

An earlier attempt at analysing SFI’s funding breakdown by gender came from Dr Derek O’Callaghan, a data scientist working at University College Dublin (UCD) spin-out Parameter Space. O’Callaghan published his findings on GitHub. This data dates back to 2003 and was compiled as a “best effort” based on publicly available information, though O’Callaghan expressed a desire for SFI to validate the figures by publishing its own data.

“In the context of progression of females to senior levels in Irish universities, these data seem to be relevant,” said Dr Sheila McBreen in reference to O’Callaghan’s research. McBreen is associate professor in the UCD School of Physics and co-founder of Parameter Space.

She added: “Funding is crucial to academic output and is therefore implicitly or explicitly a criteria for career advancement. Ideally, funding agencies would provide a detailed breakdown of funded proposals, including by gender and also supply applicant rates. These data are important for many reasons, including fairness, but they are especially critical to the assessment of female academics seeking promotion. It would be useful if the analysis by Derek O’Callaghan could be validated by SFI.”

Interest in O’Callaghan’s data was piqued in light of INFANT, a woman-led research centre concentrating on concerns regarding maternal and infant health, losing its SFI funding. Last month, a freedom of information request obtained by The Times revealed that an international review panel countered the site review panel’s “enthusiastic” recommendation to continue funding for INFANT and downgraded the centre’s ratings based on “changes of leadership” and the “quality of research”.

Checking the balance

In its analysis, SFI’s report finds there is no difference in funding success rates between men and women following the agency review procedures and, for SFI director general Prof Mark Ferguson, this indicates “there’s no obvious issue within the agency”.

Both Ferguson and the report, however, acknowledge there is work to be done in achieving gender parity in Irish science. “We still do have a significant gender imbalance amongst the principal and leading investigators within the SFI research centres,” said Ferguson. In general, this reflects what you see in the institutions.”

What Ferguson means here is that heavily male-dominated sectors will inevitably secure more funding for men. However, Prof Pat O’Connor, professor emeritus of sociology and social policy at University of Limerick, pointed out that funding bodies’ continual prioritising of these sectors perpetuates the disparity.

“If you decide the areas that you’re going to focus on are predominantly male academics, you are already setting out with a skewed gender agenda,” she said.

Actions taken

SFI’s Gender Strategy launched in 2016 and addressed several pinch points, such as supporting women researchers at critical career points, encouraging more applications from women, redressing imbalance within SFI team member cohorts and prompting institutions to become proactive on this issue from the top down.

A crucial factor in this last effort is the adoption of the Athena SWAN charter in Irish research. SFI, the Irish Research Council and the Health Research Board have all committed to tying funding to the achievement and retention of Athena SWAN awards, which are internationally recognised as a ‘quality mark’ for gender equality.

In an initiative for the SFI Research Professorship Programme, which recruits ‘research stars’ from overseas, institutes are required to alternate applications between men and women. “So, if you come to us with a candidate in 2018 who is male, and they submit a successful application, the next approach has to be a female,” explained Ferguson. “You need to make a special effort to find stellar women as well as stellar men.”

SFI also points to its support for those who require a period of leave corresponding to parenthood – a common career event that disproportionately negatively impacts women. An example of this support is the Maternity/Adoptive Leave allowance, which can be used to hire a replacement and maintain continuity of research programmes. Feedback from a recent survey of award-holders who availed of the supplement will inform further development.

Adjusting funds

In regard to positive steps SFI has taken in adjusting the funding balance, there is a strong incentive for research bodies applying for the Starting Investigator Research Grant (SIRG) to submit more women candidates. Up to 12 candidates can be proposed for this grant from a single research institute, but a maximum of six can be men.

All applications being treated equally, this resulted in an increase in the number of women awardees from 27pc in 2013 to 54pc in 2015. Data for the 2018 programme awardees is yet to be finalised, but 48pc of applications in this round came from women.

O’Connor acknowledged the effectiveness of the SIRG incentive, but challenged the agency on why it had not taken this proven strategy further. “The obvious thing would be to generalise that strategy,” she said.

While Ferguson boasted of SFI leading “nationally and internationally” in terms of addressing this issue, he added that it is open to suggestions on effective ideas that could further this agenda. “We try to keep abreast of what people are doing internationally, looking for good ideas because, actually, this is a tough area,” he said.

O’Connor suggested the agency could adopt learnings from its sister organisation, the Irish Research Council, in terms of funding at the postdoctoral level.

She also pointed to the Advance reform programme from the National Science Foundation in the US as one that “produced extraordinary effects”. This programme, O’Connor explained, “works on the assumption that you need power to change an organisation, so they work with people who already have power, and these people act as organisational catalysts to change the proportion of women in STEM”.

“The idea that you would actually take this issue about knowledge and the gender profile of those in STEM sufficiently seriously that you would fund an institutional transformation programme led by academics who are concerned about gender equality, now that’s serious action,” O’Connor added.

Power play

According to its 2017 figures, SFI achieved its Gender Action Plan 2020 target of reaching 25pc female award-holders. This target has been revised upward to 30pc.

Other analyses of the number of active SFI award-holders and the percentage of women on teams employed on SFI awards show incremental increases of 2pc to 3pc in recent years, which is indeed progress but in small steps.

“What is irritating is that things are changing quite fast in Ireland on this gender issue, and Science Foundation Ireland, who are this huge funder at the cutting edge in all sorts of areas, aren’t at the cutting edge on this,” said O’Connor.

O’Connor also warned that this issue “raises very fundamental and worrying issues about power and gender”.

“It’s extremely difficult for anybody in STEM to fight this corner because, if they are receiving or have received funding from Science Foundation Ireland, they’re afraid that they could be penalised,” she said. “Who holds Science Foundation Ireland to account is a question that I do not know the answer to, but it worries me a great deal.”

In the clear?

In response to the community call for this data and clarity on SFI’s funding practices, Ferguson acknowledged the knowledge gap. “In fairness, [the data released today] wasn’t available to the people,” he said. “Since 2011, we’ve been tracking that data and what we’re doing with this document is just releasing that data and the analysis so people can see it and they can see where the issues are.”

Ferguson added: “I’m not pretending that there aren’t issues. There are clearly issues.” However, he held firm that SFI’s processes are fair and transparent, and it is working to achieve the right balance.

“It’s largely an application problem. I don’t think we can actually say that’s not our problem. I think we have to be innovative – like we’ve done with the Starting Investigator programme and like we’ve done with the Research Professorship programme – to try to assist the HEIs [higher education institutes] in addressing that problem,” he concluded.

“All this rhetoric of we want more women, and we want more women – it’s actions that count,” advised O’Connor. “If you do have role models and leaders and they end up disappearing under very strange circumstances, the only thing you register is that somehow or other their face didn’t fit, and that certainly would not encourage an excellent and ambitious young woman to think that they had a future in STEM.”

Click here to view the SFI report in full and visit the ‘Women In Science’ page for further information.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.