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Cancer research funding heavily skewed to male researchers

Male researchers receive far greater funding for cancer research than their female equivalents

Louise Prime

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Cancer research funding in the UK is heavily skewed towards male researchers, a study* published in BMJ Open has revealed. The authors found substantial discrepancies between men and women primary investigators in terms of total investment, the number of funded awards, and mean and median funding awarded – and they called on policy-makers, funders and the academic and scientific community to investigate the factors behind these differences and ensure that “women are appropriately supported in scientific endeavour”.

The study team, led from the Royal Free NHS Foundation Trust in London and including researchers from the University of Oxford, University College London and Harvard University in the US, among others, pointed out that although in the EU women represent almost half of the workforce and more than half of all university graduates, they are underrepresented in senior positions in the workplace.

They noted that: “In science, research and development, the attrition rate among women exceeds that of their male counterparts at every stage of career progression in a phenomenon termed the ‘leaky pipeline’, with women representing 46% of PhD graduates, 33% of career scientists and 22% of grade A researchers (the highest posts at which research is conducted – equivalent to professorships in the UK).” In light of this, they conducted a systematic analysis of all open-access data to determine the extent of variations in cancer research funding in the UK by gender of primary investigator (PI).

They analysed data from several sources relating to public and philanthropic cancer research funding awarded to UK institutions between 2000 and 2013, and compared total investment, award number, mean and median award value between male and female PIs.

They reported that for the studies that they analysed, 2,890 (69%) grants with a total value of £1.82bn (78%) were awarded to male PIs compared with 1,296 (31%) grants with a total value of £512m (22%) awarded to female PIs. Male PIs received 1.3 times the median award value of their female counterparts. They added these apparent absolute and relative differences largely persisted regardless of sub-analyses.

They acknowledged that their study was dependent on the accuracy of original investment data from the funding bodies. They could not openly access data of private sector research funding, nor were they able to obtain disaggregated data from Cancer Research UK. Nor did their study allow them to postulate any potential underlying mechanisms responsible for their results.

Nevertheless, they concluded: “This study demonstrates substantial gender imbalances in cancer research investment. We would strongly urge policy-makers, funders and the academic and scientific community to investigate the factors leading to our observed differences and seek to ensure that women are appropriately supported in scientific endeavour.”


*Zhou CD, Head MG, Marshall DC, et al. A systematic analysis of UK cancer research funding by gender of primary investigator. BMJ Open 2018; 8: e018625. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2017-018625.

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