Gender Balance in NIH High Risk Research Programs-2015

Oct 23 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

When the NIH High Risk Research Program awardees for 2015 were announced concerns were raised about the balance of women and men among the awardees. This portfolio includes four programs:  NIH Director's Pioneer Award, NIH Director's New Innovator Award, NIH Director's Early Independence Award, and NIH Transformative R01 program.  These gender distribution among the awardees is shown below:

Pioneer: 10 men, 3 women (23% women)

New Innovator:  28 men, 13 women (32% women)

Early Independence:  13 men, 3 women (19% women)

Transformative R01:  10 men, 3 women (23% women)


Overall, women hold approximately 27% of research project grants at NIH so that the percentages in the High Risk programs do tend to be low. However, as I noted in my previous post, it is difficult to interpret these percentages without knowledge of the pool of individuals who applied to these programs.

Information about the applicant pool is not publicly available directly. However, I filed a FOIA request on October 8th and was pleased to receive the response yesterday (October 22nd, 2 weeks, record time for me...Thank you NIH staff and NIH FOIA office).

Below is the information that I received regarding the applicant pool gender composition:

Pioneer:  154 men, 49 women, 5 unknown/withheld (24% women among known)

New Innovator:  349 men, 138 women, 10 unknown/withheld (28% women among known)

Early Independence:  36 men, 26 women, 18 unknown/withheld (42% women among known)

Transformative R01:  248 men, 64 women, 17 unknown/withheld (21% women among known)


Note that gender information is not available for 18/80 = 22.5% of the applicants for the Early Independence Award. This may reflect that many of these applicants are new to NIH and have not provided this information. If we assume that all of the applicants with unknown gender are men, then the percentage of women is 33%. If we assume that all of these applicants are women, the percentage of women is 55%.


For the Pioneer program, the percentage of women awardees matches the percentage of women applicants. Based on the numbers, the p-value is 1.00, that is, there is no evidence that these distributions are different.

For the New Innovator program, the percentage of women awardees is slightly higher than the percentage of women in the applicant pool (32% versus 28%). The p-value is 0.72, indicating that the gender distribution of awardees is reasonably likely given the gender distribution of applicants.

For the Early Independence program, the percentage of women awardees is lower than the percentage in the applicant pool (19% versus 33-55%). Using the numbers for those with known gender, this mismatch has a p-value of 0.15. This is concerning as I will return to shortly.


For the Transformative R01 program, the percentage of women awardees is slightly higher than the percentage in the applicant pool (23% versus 21%). The p-value is 0.74.

Thus, for three of the programs, there is either no evidence of bias going from the applicant pool to the awardee pool. However, the percentages of women in the applicant pools are relatively low (21 to 28%). Particularly for the New Innovator program, the fact that only 28% of the applicants are women may reflect the pool of eligible faculty (although examining this will require additional data) or may reflect the likelihood that eligible women apply at the same frequency as do eligible men.


The most concerning data are for the Early Independence program. There is reasonably strong evidence for bias against women in moving from the applicant pool to the awardee pool (although knowledge of the magnitude of this effect is limited by the missing data for the applicant pool). There are at least two levels where this bias may be manifest. First, of course, is the review and selection process. But, one should keep in mind that this program requires considerable evidence of institutional support. Each institution is limited to two applicants and the application requires details about institutional support. Regardless of the sources, the NIH should examine this aspect of this program in short order to understand and try to correct any shortcomings of the process. This program has the potential to be particularly valuable for women since it is intended to shorten the time to independence, potentially better aligning the career path with biological clocks for those interested in having a family.

The data that I obtained allow one additional bit of analysis. The success rates for the program are as follows:

Pioneer:  13/208 = 6.3%

New Innovator:  41/497 = 8.2%

Early Independence:  16/80 = 20%

Transformative R01:  13/329 = 4.0%

While these success rates are low but the application processes, at least for the Pioneer and New Innovator awards, are relatively streamlined and, in my opinion, many additional scientists should consider applying to these programs. For the Early Independence program, the success rate is relatively high, but this reflects the limitation of two applicants per institution. This limitation presents another point of potential bias toward particular types of applicant.

The program are important in their own right and are flagships for NIH. It is essential that they be examine carefully to ensure as much as possible that they are serving their stated goals and are capturing the full range of outstanding scientific talent in the community.

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