Please note that much of the following is shamelessly stolen from a blog called Pharyngula: a stage in vertebrate embryonic development where all species look similar. This post, specifically, made me aware of the issue and most of these sources.
A letter in the July 14th issue of Nature draws attention to the possibility of sex discrimination in the European Young Investigator Awards, issued by the European Science Foundation. The awards provide up to 1.25 million Euros for research, but only 12% of them went to women, despite more than 25% of applicants being female. The chances of that distribution occurring as the result of random variation is less than 0.05%. The September 8th issue features a response, but it isn’t terribly convincing.
Of course, it is possible that the work submitted by women was less worthy of funding. Further research, however, suggests that this is not the case. A study by Christine Wenneras and Agnes Wold (“Nepotism and sexism in peer-review,” Nature 387, 341âˆ’343; 1997 – Oxford Full Text) includes some very dispiriting findings. The study looked at applicants to the Medical Research Council in Sweden. As part of their consideration, applicants are given a score for ‘scientific competence.’ In the Wenneras and Wold study, the productivity history of male and female scientists in Europe was evaluated using ‘impact points.’ For example, a publication in Science or Nature is worth about 23 points, whereas “an excellent specialist journal such as Atherosclerosis, Gut, Infection and Immunity, Neuroscience or Radiology” would be worth three points. Based on this approach, Wenneras and Wold concluded that “a female applicant had to be 2.5 times more productive than the average male applicant to receive the same competence score as he.”
That’s really awful. Indeed, it goes a long way towards discrediting the notion that the scientific community is capable of unbiased appraisal. While the study doesn’t tell us whether problems extend beyond the Medical Research Council, it certainly seems to warrant further examination. A lot more studies are discussed in this article.
Would it be feasible or beneficial to introduce a system wherein those reviewing scientific work could be kept from knowing whose work they are assessing? While that is possible for individual articles, it doesn’t seem possible in the context of grants or promotions. I would expect that most scientific disciplines are small enough that reviewers could pretty easily identify the source of work, even if personal details are removed from the copies they examine. That is especially true in the context of choosing who to promote within a particular university department. How, then, could greater fairness be achieved? I would be especially interested in suggestions from women doing academic work in the sciences.