According to research published yesterday, research funder NWO discriminates against female scientists when awarding grants. According to some scientists, however, evidence for this statement is flimsy.

‘We disagree with the assertion in the article that NWO currently discriminates,’ Daniël Lakens and Rolf Hut write on the Volkskrant website. The two scientists find it unconvincing as there is hardly any significant statistical difference between grant awards to men and women. ‘If we include new data from 2015, the effect disappears. It also disappears if we use better analysis techniques,’ they write.

In a blog, Casper Albers from the University of Groningen also writes that no clear conclusion can be drawn from the figures. He states that a critical look at the statistics used undermines the suspicion of discrimination.

Naomi Ellemers responds to the criticism

‘The criticism focuses only on one statistical test, while we also used other tests that show much stronger effects,’ responds Professor Naomi Ellemers, one of the authors of the article. ‘What’s more, we did not yet have the 2015 data. We worked on this for a year and a half, and used data made available by NWO at that time. I don’t know what data were used in the analyses made by others.’

Effect was the starting point

Furthermore, the outcomes of the statistical test that is currently being discussed are not the most important part of the research, according to Ellemers. ‘NWO had noticed that there was a pattern year in, year out, in which women received fewer grants than men. That effect was the starting point; we then started to examine the cause in more depth,’ says Ellemers.

It became apparent that language plays a role, that the proposals submitted by men and women are assessed equally positively as to their content, and that women, particularly in sectors in which they submit many applications, have less chance of receiving a grant than men. Ellemers: ‘This information is new, to NWO in any event. I consider that to be more important than the general finding that there is a difference.’

At the start of this week NWO had already announced measures to address sex discrimination. Incidentally, nobody is against this. Lakens and Hut say in the Volkskrant that it is good that the selection procedure is changing, and Albers writes that discrimination is a social issue ‘that needs to be addressed at all levels.’