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Robinson E., Snellman K. (2016). Differences in Institutional Support by Sex Journal of the American Medical Association, 315(8), pp. 821-822.
Dr Sege and colleagues1 found that junior female faculty in the biomedical field received significantly less start-up funding from their institutions than men. Assessing the validity of this finding, however, is challenging for 2 reasons: they analyzed data on grant applicants, which may not be a representative sample of junior biomedical scientists, and they did not control for scientist subfield.Using data on grant applicants to study differences in institutional support is problematic because women submit fewer grant applications and are less likely to seek subsequent grants after receiving initial funding.2 For example, a study of National Institutes of Health career development award (K series) recipients found that men applied for subsequent grants at higher rates than women.3 This finding is consistent with research in psychology that shows that women have lower expectations for salary, are less likely to negotiate for additional compensation, and are more satisfied with lower pay.4,5Thus, it is plausible that women who receive higher than average start-up packages from their institution decide not to apply for research grants from foundations like the one studied by Sege and colleagues and therefore are missing from the data set they analyzed.In other words, sex differences in start-up funding observed by Sege and colleagues could be a result of women with greater start-up packages not applying for research grants and not a true difference in institutional support. A better research strategy would be to analyze a sample of junior biomedical scientists that includes both those who apply for external grants and those who do not.Men may also work in subfields that require larger budgets. In this case, differences in funding levels would not mean women are being underfunded or discriminated against, but rather simply reflect differences in funding needs. This is supported by the authors’ finding that there was no significant difference by sex in the start-up funding of clinical scientists; clinical research has smaller and less variant funding requirements than basic science.More comprehensive data and systematic research on early career funding of scientists and sex differences in funding are needed.