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Grants are important for researchers’ careers and only the best applicants receive them. So, what is the best and how are the best selected? As Helene Schiffbänker from Joanneum Research in Vienna explains, the research project GRANteD aims to find out by identifying potential bias factors.

As grants and competitive research funding become increasingly relevant for researchers’ careers, a fair allocation of grants is essential to select excellent researchers. To allocate grants, the peer review system is a widely used form, yet it has been criticised for various limitations, such as gender (un)fairness or even inherent gender bias. General bias might easily be identified as gender bias, like the “Matthaeus effect”, which demonstrates that when you already have one grant, it is easier to get another.

The “Grant Allocation Disparities from a Gender Perspective” project, or GRANteD, is tackling this issue. The Horizon 2020 research project, in which EUA member University of Orebro is a partner, is analysing potential gender bias in grant allocation and the impact of grants on female and male grantees’ careers.  

In an international comparison, there is sufficient evidence that women have lower success rates. Yet the lower success rates do not necessarily reflect a gender-related injustice or gender bias, as they could also be due to the lower performance of the applicants. Also, in some disciplines and in some countries, women get more grants than men. That is why it is important to investigate the grant allocation processes and also take a close look at the indicators with which we measure performance. The past performance of applicants is crucial in the assessment of grants, which is being measured by publications, grants or awards. It has to be considered that these particular performance indicators can themselves be gender biased, as they often reflect the imbalances of the research system, like unequal hierarchical positions with unequal resources. Consequently, GRANteD takes into account and further develops additional variables relevant for grant decision making and allocation processes.

In the gendERC study (Gendered dimensions in ERC grant selection) commissioned by the European Research Council (ERC), Joanneum Research, Tecnalia and EUA member VU Amsterdam investigated why women have lower success rates at ERC Starting Grants. Results show that factors like mobility or independence were discussed more when assessing women than men. 

In the GRANteD project, reviewers are perceived as one further potential source for bias, potentially sharing gender stereotypes or implicit bias or other subjective features, which determine the process of assessing proposals and applicants. As decision making is done at the panel level, group and power dynamics will also be examined.

GRANteD analyses issues of gender gaps and potential gender (in)equality in research funding and peer review processes, covering four phases:

  • Analyse the phase before applying for a grant and study how resources in research teams are distributed, checking for the support and encouragement to apply.
  • Study the applications phase, including eligibility criteria.
  • Focus on the grant allocations process, distinguishing between the formal rules and regulations that research funding organisations are implementing, and the practices that reviewers, panel members and panels apply in their daily business. Are criteria applied systematically? How is performance measured? What is discussed as merit/excellence?
  • Check the impact of grants on careers of grantees and non-grantees and ask if grants are equally important for female and male grantees

There GRANteD project closely collaborates with five selected research funding organisations in five countries. In ongoing funding calls for proposals, the processes are examined and analysed, applicants are interviewed, and award decisions and selection processes are analysed. Co-creation with the research funding organisations is important in this context. We know that the people who work in these institutions have a lot of experience with what works best. 

So far, gender equality experienced research funding organisations like the Austrian Science Fund, as well as funding organisations from Sweden and Ireland are collaborators. Umbrella organisations like Science Europe and EUA are members of the GRANteD Stakeholder Committee. Together we hope to develop a sound methodological approach that is able to handle the complex nature of gender bias in grant allocation.  


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

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