They’re not even trying at NIH


I just saw this, and I think everybody needs to see this. Here it is:

Imagine that you’re a biomedical researcher. You’ve got carpel tunnel from pipetting, you can guesstimate what 10mL looks like within 0.02 mL. You’re now operating a fledgling lab, have a few students who need support, and a dean who is getting impatient waiting for you to land your first major award. You just spent a month of your life writing a kickass proposal. Also imagine that you’re a woman. And now imagine finding out that this proposal is being reviewed by a panel at NIH that is exclusively composed of men.

This is more than a disappointment. In 2019, this is a downright disaster.

What do I know about this stuff, anyway? Well, enough to know that NIH is, apparently, not even trying. I’ve served on a bunch of panels for NSF. Usually these panels have been a little smaller than 26. But nonetheless, on every single one of these panels, there had been a good balance of genders, junior and senior academics, academics from all kinds of institutions (regional publics, R1s, R2s, SLACs, occasionally community colleges, NGOs), and solid representation of folks from underrepresented identities (such as ethnicity and disability status). And, of course, it should go without saying that everybody on the panel had the expertise to belong in that room. I’m not saying it’s easy to create panels with genuine representation, and I think NSF creates genuinely diverse panels because it improves the quality of the review process.

There are two ways that NIH can wind up creating a panel that is 4% women:

  1. They are actively ignoring the identity of panelists, and this is a consequence of implicit bias and randomness.
  2. They are actively selecting against women.

My guess is that it’s the former. That they just don’t even give a damn about gender equity and or about making sure that panels are actually diverse. Even though diverse groups make better decisions. And women are arguably making better decisions about research investments.

I find it flabbergasting that nobody with actual authority had intervened into the process to say, “It’s simply just not legit to have a panel that is 96% men. We’ve got to scratch this and start over.” Instead, we only know about this because one whistleblowing panelist mentioned this absolute crisis on twitter.

I have no idea what the composition of NIH panels normally look like. But I do know that if the system is engineered such that a single panel of 96% men can be created, that the system is rotten.

And don’t be that dude who steps in and says that more women need to volunteer to be on panels. If that’s what you’re thinking right now, then you just don’t get it. The problem is way deeper than that and this is a problem lying at the feet of the agency that is failing the scientific community that it is attempting to serve.

6 thoughts on “They’re not even trying at NIH

    • “I, personally, will not change the extreme gender bias in NIH review panels…but I won’t sit on other people’s gender-biased panels, so that’s something!”

    • The head of NIH is only trying insofar as the definition of trying is “severely straining the powers of endurance”

  1. One can see study section rosters here…
    I encourage people to do that in order to collect and analyze more data.
    I say this in part because my anecdotal experience, based on service on two panels in the last 6 months, is not similar to that described by Rick Peltier.

    • As an aside, as the years go by, as a person not in an NIH field, I continue to be surprised at how different the NIH review process is different from the NSF process, in which the identity of people on specific panels remains confidential.

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