With the recent announcement of the "high-risk" research awards from the NIH, a discussion on Twitter began around the relatively low number of women awardees for these awards. I will return to this issue later but first I want to provide some background. For this post, I will focus on the first in this suite of what is now four programs.
The NIH Director's Pioneer Award (DP1) was initiated as part of the original NIH Roadmap for Medical Research. The award was intended to be an experiment driven by a frequent concern raised to Elias Zerhouni, then the NIH Director, that there were a number of highly innovative researchers in fields relevant to the NIH mission who were not applying to NIH because the relatively opacity and complexity of the NIH application process.
There were a large number of nominees (the program initially involved nominations rather than applications) and most of the nominations were submitted shortly before the deadline catching the NIH slightly off guard (more of this later). The Pioneer application involves a 5 page essay (rather than the more standard R01-type application of 25 pages at the time) and 22 of the most highly rated applicants are interviewed in person in Bethesda. This program was initiated just as I was starting my position as Director of NIGMS and I was not involved in the program in the first year.
When the first Pioneer awards were announced in September of 2004, I was surprised and disappointed by the outcome. There were nine recipients, several of whom were relatively well established within the NIH community including, for example, Steve McKnight (who was already well recognized within NIH as an innovative and productive scientist although he has gone on to make some controversial statements about the scientific community) and Homme Hellinga (who was recognized as a rising star at the time although much of his research has turned out to be, at best, irreproducible). I was hoping to go back to my office to google the awardees because I had not heard of them or did not know much about them. In addition, all nine of the awardees were male and this, appropriately, raised concerns within the scientific community both outside and inside NIH.
After the next meeting of the Institute and Center directors, I was sharing my views with Raynard Kington, then Deputy Director of NIH. He listened carefully and told me that Dr. Zerhouni needed to hear such concerns and I dutifully went back to my office and composed a long email. A couple of days later, I walked into a meeting at which both Drs. Kington and Zerhouni were present. They called me over and asked if I/NIGMS would like to take over running the Pioneer program. I was delighted if a bit daunted by this opportunity and asked some of my key colleagues including former acting-NIGMS Director Judith Greenberg if she would be willing to help with this effort.
We had a bit of time to review the processes that were used the first year and made a number of small changes including removing a "leadership potential" criterion that was used the first year since it seemed to peripheral to the goals of the program and had the potential to introduce biases of various sorts, allowing self-nominations and later applications, recruiting a more diverse pool of reviewers (more on this later), reaching out more aggressively through many outlets about the Pioneer program, reminding applicants and reviewers at all stages that "pioneering" researchers are quite diverse in all dimensions including gender, race and ethnicity, field, and career stage.
We again received a large number of applications and the process worked fairly smoothly. The end result was 13 awardees in a wide range of fields and career stages including 7 men and 6 women. As one would expect given access to $500K per year for 5 years as well as a competitive selection process, these investigators have done quite well, some exceptionally so.
The process continued for several more years with relatively similar results. After a total of five years were complete (so that we would have a reasonable data set), we initiated a process evaluation. This was completed and released in 2010. This is quite a thorough report and I encourage interested readers to have a look in its entirety.
With regard to gender distributions of Pioneer applicants, interviewees, and awardees, the key findings were:
The percentage of female applicants ranged from 22% to 27% with a mean of 25%. This number increased the year after we took over the program, a reassuring results after the results of the first year.
The percentage of female interviewees was 27% and the percentage of female awardees was 29%. The differences between these percentages and the applicant pool were not significantly significant.
The percentage of female awardees at 29% was higher than the percentage of female R01 awardees over the same period (23%).
One striking and distress result from the first year was the percentage of women among the reviewers. These results are shown below:
While it is important to keep in mind that gender makeup of a review groups often does not eliminate or even reduce unconscious gender bias (example), the results from the first year of the Pioneer program were quite worrisome. The NIH staff running the program did not anticipate the number of nominees (1331) and had to scramble to recruit enough reviewers on short notice. With that constraint, the result was 59 men and 4 women including only 1 woman on the interview committee.
As an aside, the first years of the Pioneer program were run before Grants.gov existed. A special system had to be built and this allowed collection of data about exactly when applications were submitted. The results for the first year that NIGMS ran the program are shown below:
This shows the number of nominations/applications as a function of the data from the opening of the submission site (3/1) to the closing date (4/1). This reveals that many applicants submitted within the last few days before the due date. In addition, the eventual awardees (shown with red bars) tended to submit late in the day including a few minutes before the deadline. I would never have some much faith in a website.
I will discuss some of the other programs in subsequent posts. For now, I welcome thoughts about this analysis of the Pioneer program including gender balance issues. I have submitted a FOIA request for information about the applicant pools for these programs for the current year so that I hope to have data to do some analysis beyond looking at the awardees.