The gendered impacts of funding Australia’s research

Janine Pickering is a senior consultant for CIS Consulting and Implementation Services. She works with individuals, teams, and organisations to design and implement positive workplace change.

Her passion lies at the interface of industry and academia where innovation thrives. So, it was a natural next step to include the role of ‘pracademic’ in her career portfolio. In this, she combines her consulting expertise with part-time lecturing/tutoring and research at Swinburne University. Her PhD is in Economic Sociology, with research interests in gender, work and organisations. She can be contacted via LinkedIn.


Mind the Gap goes feminist! by London Student Feminists [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Mind the Gap goes feminist! by London Student Feminists [CC BY-SA 3.0]

I have a bee in my bonnet about the impact of grant funding on women’s research careers so, last year, I made a submission to the Senate Inquiry into Funding Australia’s Research.

Although gender equity was not the main focus of the Inquiry, it is a crucial issue for productivity in research, hence several submissions raised it. The submission from the Australian Academy of Science EMCR Forum, for example, highlighted the significant disadvantages to women and minorities in the competitive funding process due to systemic biases and poor evaluation of track record relative to opportunity.

On reading the final report (722 Kb PDF), it was apparent that most of the Inquiry submissions as well as the Committee’s recommendations were focused on iterative changes to the current system, not a complete overhaul. However, based on my PhD research (2010 – 2015) into gender dynamics in biotech organisations (2.27 Mb PDF), I believe a tweaking of the current funding system will have only minimal impact on the outcomes for women in research and, consequently, on research productivity. My research was specific to science but I expect is equally relevant to the humanities and other areas.

I compared the career outcomes of women and men in biotechnology. A major finding was that women are more likely to become managers in commercial biotech firms than in public research organisations and, when they do, they hold management roles with relatively similar responsibilities and pay to men. In contrast, in public research organisations such as universities and research institutes, women who become managers tend to congregate in lower level management positions.

According to my research participants, one reason for this poor gender equity outcome in public research is the system of grant funding.

Essentially, the system determines: a) how productivity is defined; and b) how work is organised. These two factors generally disadvantage anyone with responsibilities outside of work, with women disproportionately penalised as they are the great majority who continue to shoulder more responsibility for family care.

Grants and productivity

In public research institutions, staff promotions are often directly linked to grants. But when ‘the system’ drives decisions about who gets promoted, publications are recognised disproportionately above any other measure of a researcher’s productivity. This time-based assessment of productivity often disadvantages anyone who has responsibilities outside work or takes time out for family care. While there is some consideration of the impact of career breaks on track record, this is difficult to assess and relies on the discretion of reviewers. This begs the question, ‘How many papers is a baby worth?’ (125 Kb PDF).

Meanwhile, other avenues for career progression are very limited in public sector research. For example, teamwork, communication and management skills are paid scant attention in the competitive grants system. These skills are considered integral to productivity in commercial biotech and provide a pathway into management. In public research, however, the preoccupation with publications means that team contributions are often overlooked and team leadership potential goes unrealised.

“You could actually make someone else’s project much more productive because you’ve spent the time counselling the junior staff, sorting out the lab problems, making sure that people actually get on together, drawing new collaborations together between people who never would have thought they could work together before. I mean, this all rings true, right? Women around me do this very well but they’re not going to get official [grant] recognition if they’re renowned for that.”  

– Senior Research Manager, Public Research Organisation

Grants and the way work is organised

Shared work arrangements and support from colleagues can alleviate the pressure on individuals during peak work periods, and are especially helpful to anyone combining work and family or other responsibilities. However, this can be difficult to organise in a competitive grant-driven environment.

With grants tied to individual researchers and specific projects, public research organisations have limited funds or flexibility to manage the institution holistically. For example, there is limited scope to coordinate the movement of staff into high priority projects according to the demands of the work; spread the workload more evenly; employ additional staff to assist with peak loads; create part-time roles; and cover staff absences or career breaks. By contrast, these organisational strategies are commonly used in commercial biotech to optimise productivity, meet deadlines and share the load across the whole team.

Job insecurity

Appointment, tenure and promotion are directly linked to grants in many public research organisations, creating high levels of job insecurity. This is further compounded by the low success rate for grant applications. My research shows the proportion of managers on term appointments in the Victorian public biotech sector (56 percent) is significantly higher than the proportion on term appointments in Victorian biotech firms (20.5 percent). And, within the public sector, the proportion of managers on terms is higher in research institutes (62 percent) where there is a greater reliance on grants, than in universities (38 percent).

Furthermore, this job insecurity is personalised. With grants awarded to individuals or teams led by a Chief Investigator (CI), those individuals can be under extreme pressure to win further grant funding to employ their team. Even though they work in large organisations, they face similar pressures to the self-employed or small business owners.

“There’s a degree of constancy required in academia. You’re the person on a contract, you’re responsible for getting the contracts, you’ve got all these people working for you and you can give them no certainty or anything. It would be tough.”

– CEO, Biotech Firm
Long hours and no breaks

The administrative load and constant pressure created by the grants system drives long hours in public sector research, and those with family or other outside responsibilities feel the impact the most. While researchers generally accept the need for long hours in an internationally competitive race for discovery, many feel ‘burnt out’ from this additional load. For some, it’s the last straw and drives them from the sector.

“If only they could change the grants system so there is a lesser requirement to apply, at least less often, so I can have time to be creative without thinking do I need to write another grant.”

– Senior Research Manager, Public Research Organisation

The normal career path in scientific research continues to be linear, continuous and full-time.  Despite policies to the contrary, there is a strong perception that career breaks or part-time work are not feasible at senior levels. High-achieving women and men focused on productivity are sensitive to these perceptions and therefore limit their parental or other leave to protect their careers, and are reluctant to take up part-time arrangements. In contrast, in biotech, part-time work is normalised for both men and women, including at the management level.

Is there a better way to fund research?

Although dissatisfaction with ‘the system’ is rife, it is generally assumed that competitive grants are the best way to allocate research funding. Perhaps this is because scientists are socialised to believe in competition from their early career training and they have become inured to this way of working.

However, it seems counterproductive to rely so heavily on a relatively small number of elite scientists and risk burning them out, while other talented researchers fall by the wayside. The unreasonable workload, job insecurity and narrow view of productivity associated with grant funding leads to the under-utilisation of highly qualified researchers.

To facilitate real change, I believe Australia should move away from a centralised grants system focused on individual scientists and toward block funding of whole institutions. This could still be competitive and based on organisational performance but would provide research organisations the autonomy and flexibility to manage work in a way that provides opportunity for everyone to contribute to their best ability. Team leadership potential could be assessed at the local level and the appointment and promotion of scientists and team leaders ‘decoupled’ from the award of grants.

This is a ‘shared risk’ model where both organisations and individuals shoulder responsibility for scientific productivity, rather than leaving individual scientists to shoulder all the risks as de facto self-employed contractors constantly reapplying for funding.

From a public accountability perspective, I argue this model would make individual research institutes more accountable for effective management of their workforce, help address the under-representation of women at senior levels, and thereby capitalise on the public investment in education.

Indeed, public research organisations could learn some lessons from the commercial biotech sector on what works for women.

5 Responses to The gendered impacts of funding Australia’s research

  1. Jenni Gunter says:

    Congratulations. Great article. I think about this a lot. Measured as individuals in a system that relies on the success of teams. The metrics that keep us employed are completely out of step with the skills required for the job and act as more of a pull mechanism away from effective research. .

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  2. Nian Jiang says:

    I love your idea of block funding of the whole institution – this forces the institution to act a whole. Have you done more studies on how this will reshape the public research institution? I am very very interested in knowing more about this!

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  3. Peter Bentley says:

    Thanks for the post, which I enjoyed reading.

    A couple of points of clarification and disagreement though. While most submissions focused on ‘tweaking’ the system, a fairly radical ‘lottery’ system was proposed by one submission and considered by the panel. The IRU submission (which I was part of) also discussed random allocation and recommended shifting the balance more towards block grants to institutions. The IRU submission particularly focused on DECRA/ECA/ECR, considering allocating the DECRA funding to universities to administer. One reason (I believe) this is preferable to including it as a block grant is that it protects the funding from being reallocated to other career levels and greatly expedites the process. There are many potential problems with earmarking funding, but I would be interested in your views on this approach.

    Secondly, I had a look at the Australian Academy of Science EMCR Forum submission and I don’t think it showed much evidence of “systemic biases and poor evaluation of track record relative to opportunity” in competitive funding for women and minorities. It shows a chart (Figure 1, p.5) demonstrating that females are awarded fewer grants but have higher success % (relative to males) in most years. They conclude that “In order to be awarded competitive funding, individuals from underrepresented groups will need to submit more applications on average to be successful” but this is simply not true. Individuals from underrepresented groups appear at least as likely to be successful when applying compared to dominant groups. The problem is that fewer apply (or are in a position to apply) for grants or are included as CIs in applications.

    IMO more attention needs to focus on increasing the #/% of applications from underrepresented groups by looking at ways the current system discourages applications, rather than biases in how they are selected (if the success rates for applications are comparable or higher for underrepresented groups). I don’t claim to have evidence of this, but I would expect that perceived biases in how the ROPE section is evaluated leads underrepresented groups to not apply, or such people receive less encouragement to apply. The current system of lengthy applications written over the summer period also indirectly discriminates against people with school aged children and below, plus anyone in part-time/casual employment.

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    • Janine Pickering says:

      Hi Peter, Nian and Jenni
      Thanks all for your thoughtful comments, and enthusiasm to find better ways to fund research, the issue is obviously complex!

      Peter, IMO a partial move towards block funding (eg just for ECR grants) would not be sufficient to drive the cultural change required in research funding.

      If organisations were required to distribute resources to optimise productivity and draw on a diverse talent pool, they would need to develop the skills and infrastructure to do this well and also gain the trust of researchers. I feel that they would only be vested in this if they were granted the funding and flexibility to make decisions across the whole research workforce and not have two ‘systems’ working against each other (hence your concern about potential reallocation).

      But maybe I’m too sceptical? Maybe partial block funding could be an improvement, under certain conditions. Two thoughts come to mind. The first is the SAGE program (Australian version of Athena Swan) that recognises institutions’ management of diversity, particularly women in STEM. It has been mooted that funding to organisations could be contingent on reaching a minimum SAGE standard to ensure opportunities for diverse groups.

      The second is the CRC program. One of my CIS colleagues has pointed out that the larger scale and longer term funding provided through this program is more like block funding than the individual grants I focused on in my article. Due to the scale and industry cooperation criteria for CRCs, organisations tend to put more effort into managing the work and people involved as well as providing support for preparing CRC grant applications. Expansion of this program could potentially promote better management and staff opportunity/diversity over time.

      Also, since posting this article I’ve come across the work of Sarah Otner on competition design, ‘near winners’, and diversity of judges (see sarahotner.com for a fascinating podcast). She and her colleague discuss interesting ideas that could provide a way forward (I need to read more!)

      Despite the progress (you rightly point out Peter) being made to reduce bias in grant decisions, I believe diversity in the research workforce at senior levels will continue to be a problem as long researchers are required to continually submit time-consuming grant applications and compete on the basis of their individual achievements when research is so often dependent on teamwork.
      So much to consider!
      Cheers, Janine

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      • Peter Bentley says:

        Thanks Janine for your insights, I will check out the Sarah Otner, it looks interesting. The problem of teamwork is surely going to be a longstanding one, and competition on individual achievements is near on impossible for ECRs (who have the potential, but not had sufficient opportunities).

        Notwithstanding these, I just think that institutions may be better placed to administer grants/support for ECRs over the ARC. At the very least, it is less time consuming to apply and less time lag for decisions, but I fear that internal university processes may be even more susceptible to bias. A selection process with random allocation among all high quality applicants would have less bias and be quicker, but too radical for most to accept. There are trade-offs.

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