March 5, 2021

Who makes decisions in science? | Science


Some days ago, Francis Collins announced that from now on he will only accept to participate in events in which there is gender balance and inclusion of diversity among his speakers. Collins is the current director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) of the USA and has directed the important and transformative Human Genome Project for 9 years. With a budget of nearly 40,000 million dollars, the NIH is the largest biomedical research funding agency in the world. Why this announcement by a prominent and universal scientist? Why is a powerful and influential leader in the field of biomedicine and the American health system bothered to make this public call? What about the gender balance in the scientific and medical field?

There is a jargon in the scientific world that can illustrate part of what is happening. As in the general field, the term mansplaining (men explaining things) has been popularized to refer to the male model of paternalistic man that gives explanations to women, in the scientific field there are similar slang terms. The manels, terminology that derives from the union of man and panel, is a way to denominate the presence only masculine in the panels or meetings of scientific experts (where important scientific decisions related to financing or publications are taken); the manference, a term that derives from man and evidence, is used to refer to scientific evidence that only provides knowledge based on the male pattern (and therefore does not take into account differences in women's health); and the himposium, that derives from him and symposium refers to events or symposia organized, directed, participated and oriented only or mostly to men.

This is not the first time that a prestigious voice of the scientific field decides to position itself on this issue. A few months ago, the medical journal The Lancet He issued a warning call asking for greater gender balance on how to do and who does science. This magazine calls for self-criticism of the institutions regarding the lack of female presence in decisions about planning, financing and scientific development. And he applies self-criticism to his own progression throughout the last decades. There are many data and analyzes that show that equity is not penetrating the scientific field as it would be desirable. The contrasted fact is that women are less likely to access public resources in science –the largest known study is Canadian and a sample of 24,000 applications is taken; women occupy a position of less relevance in the authorship of scientific publications and are less cited due to implicit biases. In addition, they are generally outside the spaces where the major research decisions are made: the gender gap not only is present as it is known in salary payments, but it is also shown in the scissors of gender in scientific centers (especially in biomedicine) and universities: despite the greater presence of university students and higher academic performance in most of countries, there are relatively few professors, there is a salary gap in hiring, salaries, financing and occupation in the high positions of the scientific and managerial career.

In an attempt to find the key that explains how to address this problem, The Lancet It describes a vicious circle, a labyrinth with no way out, where lack of funding makes professional career difficult and vice versa, making it impossible to access relevant positions in the authorship of articles or invitations to committees, conferences and relevant positions where decisions are made. Among many other consequences, inequality and lack of diversity in science implies a slower advance in knowledge relevant to women (and other groups) and therefore less impact on health. What do we miss? What is lost science, and therefore society, with this insufficient inclusion? How can scientific questions be improved if more women are included? How would a more inclusive science approach any current scientific question?

A coordinated institutional strategy geared to the causes of gender inequalities is essential

How can we change this trend?

Again, it is a vicious circle, as there are studies that show that the advancement of women in the scientific profession is key to advancing relevant knowledge for women. With a sample of 1.5 million scientific articles (published between 2008 and 2015), it was identified that when there is a woman among its authors it's 30% more likely that an investigation takes into account sex and gender. The exclusion of women as researchers and as an object of study and of every person who does not follow the masculine and white standard- impoverishes science. What can be done to provoke a turn of trend? In the United Kingdom and other Anglo-Saxon countries, the Athena Swan Charter for Women in Science. This letter of commitment includes greater support in scientific careers, greater appreciation for the responsibility attributed to women to care for their families, and more efforts to challenge biases and discrimination by sex or gender. The evaluation studies, although recent, point towards a positive impact especially in the awareness within the centers and universities, although not enough for its long-term sustainability. A coordinated institutional strategy oriented towards the causes of gender inequalities is essential, including cultural changes, in welfare state policies and encouraging men to increase their participation in family work. In this sense, the Agency for Health Quality and Evaluation (AQuAS) has launched a project in collaboration with the "la Caixa" Banking Foundation, through which the aim is to make gender scissors visible in the biomedical research centers of Catalonia and Spain. , in parallel, to organize days of reflection with the leaders of these centers to advance together in an analysis of what we miss as a society with a non-inclusive science, what men have to change and what women have to change.

Data from the AQUAS agency of the categories of men and women in Catalan research centers by categories.


Data from the AQUAS agency of the categories of men and women in Catalan research centers by categories.

If careers and scientific leadership are not inclusive and egalitarian, science will remain impoverished and therefore disconnected from society as a whole. Health science and research are not compartmentalized compartments on the margins of society. On the contrary, scientific research, like any other activity, must condition and be conditioned directly by the social context. Becoming aware of and identifying these distortions will give us the impetus to transform science into a true tool of progress for the whole of society.

César Velasco, Paula Adam Y Eduard Güell they are director, research director and researcher of the agency AQuAS, respectively.

If careers and scientific leadership are not inclusive and egalitarian science will remain impoverished and disconnected from society as a whole

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