‘Remove grant application barriers’ to fix research inequalities

Funders should review how interviews, eligibility criteria and internal selection policies work against marginalised groups, says study co-funded by Wellcome and Oxford

一月 19, 2023
A diver checks a huge net holding hundreds of fish to illustrate ‘Remove grant application barriers’ for net research gain
Source: Getty

Funders should stop disqualifying researchers from applying for grants based on the number of years since they completed their doctorate because such bans may disproportionately hurt underrepresented groups, according to a major new study from the University of Oxford and the Wellcome Trust.

In a lengthy report on how universities and funders can help under-represented groups to succeed, funding bodies are urged to review eligibility criteria that prevent researchers from applying for early career grants based on the number of years since obtaining a PhD, typically eight to 10 years.

Exemptions to these rules – which, for instance, allow additional years after a PhD for those who have taken childcare leave – are unhelpful because “anyone who is an exception may feel othered”, says the report.

Preventing or limiting resubmissions to grant schemes may also have a “disproportionate impact on marginalised researchers”, continues the report, which urges funders to look again at such rules. Policies that prohibit repeatedly unsuccessful applicants from applying again may also “contribute to structural inequality”, it continues, adding that unsuccessful applicants should also be provided with constructive feedback.

Demand management of grant applications to reduce applicant numbers should also be “avoided if possible”, the report adds. “Institutional limits on numbers of bids permitted, introducing additional and internal levels of selection…may be more vulnerable to bias,” notes the report, which cautions against the use of short application windows to reduce the volume of applications.

When internal deadlines are set, they should “not come soon after school holidays”, which will “ensure that researchers with increased caring responsibilities…are not disadvantaged by having less time to prepare applications for internal selection”, it adds.

The study, published on 19 January, urges universities and funders to consider whether interviews, narrative sections on CVs or the opportunity to list prizes and funding should be used either for internal selection of potential grant applicants or in scrutinising applications themselves, because these may unfairly “benefit individuals with attributes unrelated to the conduct of the project”, such as those who are “confident, self-promotional, competitive or persuasive”.

Tanita Casci, director of Oxford’s Research Strategy and Policy Unit, who co-authored the report, told Times Higher Education that the measures were important “because part of addressing equity issues is how we evaluate quality and potential”.

“When you start thinking differently about what quality and potential mean, you have to think differently about how these are evidenced and the assessment processes you might need,” said Dr Casci.

Many research funders around the world, including the US National Institutes of Health and UK Research and Innovation, which had recently introduced narrative CVs, were “moving away from assessing track record or certain markers of esteem”, added Dr Casci, who said these changes would help universities to “put forward a more representative group of researchers” for consideration by funding organisations.

The report, Equity and Inclusivity in Research Funding: Barriers and Delivering Change, also calls on funders to remove requirements for matched funding, in which universities must pledge a certain level of institutional funding at the application stage. When match funding is required, universities should make all eligible researchers aware about potential opportunities for internal funding, selection criteria must be inclusive and efforts should be made to ensure panels do not favour those with “substantial support”, it says.

The report calls for funders and institutions to do more to publicise funding opportunities and how researchers could apply, noting that some individuals had better access to information owing to conversations held in “closed groups”.

It recommends that institutions and funders collect more information on application data, simplify systems to aid applications and increase inclusivity training for academic leaders to help them recognise unconscious bias.

Universities should also create funding opportunities targeting marginalised groups, noting Oxford’s Dorothy Hodgkin fellowship scheme, which is available to those with a “need for flexible support due to personal circumstances” such as a health condition or parental responsibilities, and the Wellcome Trust’s plans for “a dedicated funding stream for researchers who are black and people of colour”.

In addition, the study also asks funders to consider whether novel funding schemes, including lotteries or universal basic research incomes, might “improve equity for all researchers”.

Patrick Grant, pro vice-chancellor (research) at Oxford, said he hoped the “important, thorough and timely work” of the report would “act as a call to action across the sector, and for its recommendations to be a catalyst for change”.

Diego Baptista, head of research and funding equity at Wellcome, said the report “provides important recommendations for how best to deliver the equitable and inclusive research funding system we need”.




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Reader's comments (2)

Strikes me that many of these recommendations dramatically increase the administrative burden of awarding grants (eliminating various demand management measures) and may not be realistically feasible even if they are good ideas. On the other hand, some of them (lottery/universal funding) dramatically decrease it. It always make me laugh when Wellcome discuss stuff like this seeing as they are the most-exceptionalist of all of the architects of the current super-exclusive funding system. Are they actually aware of the role they played in creating the problem they now wish to solve?
Considering prior history of successful funding also perpetuates such inequalities, doesn't it? Past UKRI funding has found to disproportionately discriminated against people with protected characteristics. So, relying on funding history serves to maintain such discrimination.