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Having studied assessment practices in 5 European funding agencies, the GRANteD project research team concludes that formal policies are important to foster inclusiveness, but several limitations must still be tackled to implement these formal policies into practice and thus enable these organisations to truly spearhead change.

Fair grant allocation is key to guaranteeing that the best researchers receive funding for the best proposals. But equally, it must ensure that no one is discriminated against due to their sex, gender, age, native language or other social dimensions.

To see how this works in practice, an EU-funded project has investigated gender bias in the allocation of research grants and the impact grants have on the careers of female and male researchers. From 2019 to 2023, the GRANteD (Grant allocation disparities from a gender perspective) project worked closely with five research funding organisations* from across Europe. These organisations served as cases to be studied in depth – by interviewing staff, management, remote reviewers, panel members and panel chairs and by observing panels - while also delivering funding data that were analysed from a gender perspective. In addition,  they were active in the project’s Stakeholder Committee, together with umbrella organisations such as the European University Association and Science Europe, and representatives from sister projects, like GENDERACTIONplus. Here they were involved in fine-tuning research questions and reflecting on preliminary research findings, as well as in discussing policy recommendations.

In our policy analysis, we found that all five organisations have formal policies in place to mitigate gender bias, yet these differ in scale and scope. Those with advanced policies have established themselves as actors for change, constantly adopting and broadening their policy portfolio to improve the assessment of research grants. Therefore, various general policies as well as specific gender equality policies have been implemented, aiming for more inclusiveness in science and research.

When research funding organisations try to transform fundamental narratives within the research ecosystem, they become ‘spearheads of change’. They do so, for example, by implementing formal policies to change the understanding of excellence or implementing quotas for funding outcomes to encourage more members of minority groups to apply. Putting such innovative policies in place, RFOs sets new standards, both for applicants, on how to conduct research, and for reviewers, on how to assess research.

However, it isn’t enough to put these policies on paper and agree to them. They need to be implemented in concrete everyday practices in peer review panels. Indeed, from studying how policies are implemented we have seen some limitations, and thus, some potential for improvement.

For example, the narrative CV has been used to broaden the concept of excellence. However, reviewers struggle with giving up the h-index as benchmark for assessing merits. Further, they want to keep the h-index as a backup to check the information that applicants reported qualitatively. Another important example is how gender is taken into account in all research proposals (or how it is justified if it is not considered relevant). Here, reviewers lacked clarity on this policy and its aims and accordingly, assessing it in an informed manner was nearly impossible. Most reviewers lacked awareness about gender as a dimension of structural inequality and as an analytic dimension in their respective research fields. Therefore, the task of broadening the understanding of excellence by integrating the sex/gender dimension into the research content and innovation processes, and thereby contributing to research outcomes that are beneficial for all subgroups of society, still needs some concerted effort.

Overall, we found that innovative formal policies are not necessarily implemented in practice in peer review panels. It takes time and understanding to apply new policies, and some stakeholders – panel chairs, panel members and remote reviewers – are not always sufficiently ‘prepared’ to implement them.

To facilitate implementation in practice, a few aspects should be considered:

  • A new concept or policy should be formulated precisely, with a clear political target and an easily understandable narrative, arguing why it is implemented and what bias factors it aims to address, or which improvements are intended. Then, new concepts should be well communicated, easily comprehensible, readily adaptable and supported by accessible resources.
  • Aligning policies across research funding organisations makes it easier to apply them, as reviewers might be active in different organisations and lack time and awareness to adapt to the specific demands of each one.
  • Accountability for the implementation of (innovative) policies should be strengthened. Our research revealed that panel chairs play a crucial role in how panels work, both in general and when it comes to the implementation of innovative policies. As chairs steer the negotiation and decision-making process, they are supposed to make sure that organisational policies are transferred to panel practices. Specific training can help to organise this role more effectively.

*Austrian Science Fund; National Science Centre, Poland; Science Foundation Ireland, Swedish Research Council; Slovak Research and Development Agency.


Helene Schiffbänker
Joanneum Research

Helene Schiffbänker is a sociologist and senior researcher at Joanneum Research, Austria. Her research focuses on the implementation of gender equality measures in research organisations, in particular on research funding organisations implementing policies to mitigate (gender) bias in research assessment.

Picture credit: JOANNEUM RESEARCH/Bergmann

Michael Ploder
Joanneum Research

Michael Ploder is an economist and head of the research group on technology, innovation, policy consulting at Joanneum Research, Austria. His research focuses on the evaluation of funding programmes in science, technology and innovation.    

Picture credit: JOANNEUM RESEARCH/Bergmann

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