NWO explains that the scheme is a pilot. Starting this autumn, it plans to increase women’s chances of obtaining a prestigious Vidi grant for established researchers. If two candidates are equally deserving, a female researcher will be given preference over her male counterpart.

“With this approach, we want to help women achieve parity and increase the number of women in senior scientific positions”, says Arfan Ikram of the NWO board. The thinking behind the pilot is that many women tend to leave the world of research at exactly this point in their career.

The Vidi grants are part of NWO’s Talent Programme, which distributes a total of 190 million euros on an annual basis. Researchers can be awarded up to 850,000 euros to set up their own line of research.

Surprise

The announcement of preferential treatment for women comes as a surprise to Leiden physics professor Sense Jan van der Molen, who has studied the gender distribution of Talent grants. He and his two co-authors found that, proportionally speaking, women currently have a better chance than men of being funded by the Veni programme for researchers who recently obtained their doctorate. When it comes to the Vidi and Vici grants for more established researchers, the success rate for men and women is the same.

“We sent our article on this subject to NWO three times and never received a response”, Van der Molen tweeted. “Disappointing when you consider that we have done all this work to map out recent developments using a scientifically sound approach. And with the aim of giving NWO feedback.

The Rathenau Institute recently arrived at a similar conclusion. Women are less likely to apply for a research grant, but equally likely to be awarded one.

And thanks to the NWO’s pilot, those odds will soon improve. To achieve this, NWO plans to change its procedure. Researchers who want to obtain a grant are required to write a proposal, which is then reviewed by external experts. An NWO committee then considers the reviews and the best candidates are invited to an interview. Ultimately, every application is awarded a score, with the grants being awarded to the highest-scoring candidates.

Those scores used to go to one decimal place, but from this autumn they will be rounded off to whole or half numbers. For example, 8.6 and 8.4 will be rounded up or down to 8.5. If male and female applicants obtain the same score around the award threshold, the grant will go to the female applicant.

Disadvantage

But why is NWO taking this initiative when the problem does not lie with them? Women are still at a disadvantage in the academic world but, as Van der Molen’s study shows, this is not due to a lack of NWO grant opportunities.

In its response, the funding body emphasises its commitment to promoting equality across the academic spectrum. “NWO considers diversity and inclusion to be essential to the advancement of science”, a spokesperson says. “It is essential that people from different backgrounds come together so that issues can be highlighted from a range of perspectives. This not only generates new ideas and creative thinking, but also leads to a deeper, better understanding of issues and problems. High-quality research requires a diverse academic community.”

Aspasia ended

Last year saw the end of Aspasia, a programme launched in 2006 that encouraged the promotion of dozens of female lecturers to senior university positions. NWO seeks to pursue the same goal, but in its key grant programmes.

“The Vidi grant pilot is a first step in NWO’s new policy on diversity, inclusion and equality”, the spokesperson explains. “But we are also keenly aware that this task is not ours alone. The responsibility for increasing diversity lies with everyone concerned.”

The spokesperson is unable to say why Van der Molen and his co-authors had not received a response to their study. Something must have gone wrong, she says, assuring us that there was no intention to ignore the article.

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