The response across the world could be measured on the Richter scale after the revelation that the Swedish medical research council (MRC) exercised prejudice in its allocation of research fellowships (A. Wold and C. Wennerås, Nature 387, 341–343; 1997).
Six months later, the implications are still being discussed in the newspapers and on radio and TV. But has anything really changed? Most definitely yes, say Agnes Wold and Christine Wennerås, the authors of the Nature Commentary. The MRC has finally accepted that it had been acting unfairly, and has changed its procedures. And some research councils in other countries — for example, the United Kingdom (see Breen, G. Nature 389, 326; 1997) — are checking their own procedures.
Wold and Wennerås had to fight hard to convince Sweden's MRC that it had a problem. They began their investigations into its peer-review system two years ago, but were hampered by its lack of cooperation. The research council's belief in its system of meritocracy was unshakeable, says Wold. She and Wennerås had to get court orders to force the MRC to make documents available. Their analysis of the peer-reviewers' reports showed that in 1995 (the only year they were able to study), a woman applying for a postdoctoral fellowship had to be two-and-a-half times more productive than a man to rate the same scientific competence scores by referees. The analysis revealed that connections to any of the reviewers, independent of gender, helped bump up competence scores.
Wold believes that the MRC was genuinely unaware of the prejudices it was harbouring. Women reviewers were not significantly fairer than men, she says, when it came to estimating the skills of their own sex.
After the Nature article was published, the MRC began its own studies into possible prejudice in its allocation of project money, which it says it intends to publish. Although it found no evidence that the scientific competence of women had been misjudged, it did find that it allocated smaller grants to women than to men with identical competence ratings.
Jan Nilsson, vice-secretary of the MRC, says that he and the MRC's subcommittees which had advised on grant distribution were shocked by the revelation. “It came as a complete surprise. We had a fair system for grading scientists but transforming the grading to size of grant proved — unexpectedly — to be less rigid”. The MRC has already corrected this tendency, he says, and the size of grants allocated this autumn were based only on competency scores. This proves, says a delighted Wold, that there is no truth in the adage that “things can only change slowly because they have been like this for hundreds of years”.
Wold is intolerant of attempts to personalize the issue of discrimination. Discrimination is simply about prejudice, she says, and has nothing to do with family status, self-esteem, or any other fantasized female attribute that some claim contributes to women being taken less seriously. “It is a purely statistical problem and making it personal serves only to lower standards of discussion.” Wold has now raised the discussion to a level that has brought tangible results.
Rights and permissions
About this article
Cite this article
Abbott, A. Equality not taken for granted. Nature 390, 204 (1997). https://doi.org/10.1038/36647