Leaky pipeline for women scientists dries up after they win first big grant

Once female scientists nab a US National Institutes of Health grant, their careers tend to last nearly as long as those of men.

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After they secure their first major research grant from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), women are almost as successful as men at netting further awards from the agency, according to an analysis published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences1.

The study of almost 35,000 researchers that applied for NIH funding calls into question the commonly held belief that women leave science at a higher rate than men at all stages of their careers, which is often described as a leaky pipeline of talent.

The narrative about female scientists’ careers needs to be corrected, says Judith Greenberg, deputy director of the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, who led the study.

Source: L. A. Hechtman et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA (2018).

To come to this conclusion, the researchers identified scientists who secured their first major NIH research grant between 1991 and 2010. They then tracked any further major awards that the scientists got from the funding agency until 2015. If the scientists received no award for three consecutive years or more, the investigators considered them lost from science.

Fewer than one-third of grant applications and awards went to women, despite around half of PhDs in the biomedical sciences being awarded to female scientists over the time period. Thisunderscored the high attrition rates among women in the early stages of their careers. But once a woman got her first NIH grant, the longevity of funding during her career was only slightly less than that of a man, according to the analysis (See 'Surviving Science').

When the data were broken into five-year cohorts, the most recent group of researchers had no detectable differences between the genders, which suggests things are improving for women, says Greenberg.

The analysis did show that women are less likely to apply for a grant renewal to continue their projects than are men, and are less likely to secure funding when they do. The investigators suggest that women could benefit from more support when their first grant is up for renewal.

“This is encouraging news for women,” Greenberg says. “They should realize that, sure, it is not easy in academia, but they are not going to have any more difficulty than men once they get their first grant.”

Greenberg adds that the word needs to get out so that PhD students and postdocs have a more realistic understanding of their career prospects.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05759-w


  1. 1.

    Hechtman, L. A. et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA (2018).

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