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Gender Imbalance in Cancer Research Grants

23rd November 2018
By Suze Kundu

In October 2018, former Catalyst Grant winner ‘Ada Lovelace Day’ (ALD) celebrated its tenth year of showcasing the achievements of overlooked women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Championing for greater diversity in STEM, and changing the culture and demographics of research, is a year-round effort, and one that ALD supports. We wanted to help extend the celebration of women in science throughout the year, but also use the tools we have available to us to scientifically analyse the state of gender imbalance in research, and evaluate whether these are changing over time.

As such, we have created a series of reports looking at gender imbalance over time using the Dimensions database. Each part of this longer report will be released on a significant day for women in STEM. This first report has been launched on the birthday of Mary Seacole, in recognition of her work as a nurse and businesswoman during the Crimean War. Seacole set up the ‘British Hotel’, where she aided wounded servicemen, nursing them back to health or easing their passing, at a time when no formal training existed for the nursing profession, and skills had to be learned through experience.

In May 2018, Zhou et al. published a paper¹ that looked for evidence of gender imbalance in the number and value of grants awarded to cancer researchers. Through a long process² of manually surveying records of funding awarded, the team created a database of information that they were able to analyse. A similar study carried out by the group involved over three years of data collection, two years of data characterisation, and six months of data analysis. By using Dimensions, researchers at Digital Science were able to demonstrate that there is now a much faster way to conduct gender studies research.  A study similar to Zou et al was carried out the within a week, yielding similar results to the original study. The significant time savings that the Dimensions platform offers gender studies researchers now makes it possible to go from labour intensive periodic review to near real-time monitoring of equality and diversity across the research landscape.

Dimensions³ is a research information tool that links every aspect of the research cycle from funding to dissemination of findings and impact, allowing researchers and research analysts alike to gain valuable insights into the research being carried out. Using the Dimensions API, Digital Science researchers were able to extract a comparable amount of information as the original study carried out by Zhou’s team. Where their data mining techniques took several years to be comprehensive enough, the data scientists at Digital Science were able to gather a similar amount of data in a few moments, using the Dimensions tool. Some manual work was necessary to correctly assign gender to the names of principal investigators, but a programme was used to carry out an initial sweep of this information before the anomalies were then sorted through.

So how do the results compare? Remarkably well, in fact. Where the original study published in the BMJ surveyed grants from 2000 to 2013, the Dimensions survey chose a slightly shorter but on the whole overlapping time period, 2007 to 2017. However, the number of grants that the studies were based on differs significantly; the original study was based on 4,186 qualifying awards, compared to the 7,615 grants that Dimensions was able to identify and include, for a shorter time period, albeit one that does not directly overlap with the original study.

The original study showed that women received 31% of all grants awarded, with a total value of 22%. The Dimensions study backed up this claim, stating that only 30% of funded cancer research PIs were women. What Dimensions was able to add to the analysis however was the fact that the total funding amounts had increased from 25% to 30% of the total, implying that in the decade’s worth of information surveyed, women were moving towards receiving slightly larger grants in 2017 than they had done before, say in 2007. The Dimensions study also confirmed the findings of the original study that showed the types of cancer research that were being funded for men and women were imbalanced, with male PIs receiving funding for more ‘technical’ research, and women receiving funding for the ‘softer’ areas of cancer research.

Graph showing the percentage of total grants awarded from 2007 to 2017, split by gender. This has not changed much over time, remaining at around 30% of total grants for women

Graph showing the percentage of the total funding amount awarded from 2007 to 2017, split by gender. This has on average changed a little over time, with the linear regression showing an increase from 25% of the total value of grant funding in 2007 to 30% in 2017

Dimensions is able to quickly analyse patterns in funding, especially when compared to traditional methods of research used to carry out the same research. Why should we care about this? Digital Science believe in opening science out to everyone, and for academia to have a more diverse and inclusive culture at all levels of research. The under-representation of any minority in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) can lead to disengagement with the public that scientists are trying to help, and can also lead to a lack of ground-breaking ideas that could be sourced from a wider range of people taking part in the conversation. By using Dimensions to quickly survey trends in, for example, the demographics of those being funded, researchers, funding bodies and institutions are able to monitor the effectiveness of the range of initiatives being implemented to combat this lack of diversity more frequently and more efficiently, than they have been able to before. This could lead to better evaluation of these initiatives, and a better focus on the ones that are showing greater impact in changing the academic culture.

Over the coming months, Digital Science will be releasing a range of reports in this series that uncover how else Dimensions can be used to analyse trends in the demographics of researchers. We will be showcasing tools that allow the user to observe the impact of gender diversity initiatives implemented at Department or Subject, Institution and Country level over time. We will also be asking you, as experts within the wider research community, to help us make the tool better. Currently, a lot of our automatic gender assignment tools are focused on Western names. If we want to use this tool to comprehensively analyse the state of diversity in STEM, we need to make this more inclusive, in order to make our analysis as accurate as possible. While the focus of this use-case is a comparative study on gender diversity in one particular area of research, we strongly believe that diversity is about more than just gender imbalance, and that these issues extend beyond STEM. Lack of diversity is an issue across academia, and we look forward to sharing ways in which our tool can be used to analyse trends across a range of subjects, inclusively of all cultures.






Mary Seacole (1805 – 1881) was a British-Jamaican nurse and businesswoman. In 1854 she approached the War Office asking to be sent as an army nurse to the Crimea. She was turned down. Undeterred Mary funded her own trip to the Crimea where she set up the British Hotel to provide ‘a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers’. It is said that she even rode on horseback into the battlefields to nurse wounded men from both sides of the war.

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