United Kingdom sees dip in European research applications after Brexit vote

First published in Nature, 21.09.17

21 September 2017

The number of researchers applying for Europe-funded Marie Curie fellowships in the United Kingdom has dipped slightly since the country’s vote to leave the European Union, data released to Nature show. But there is no evidence yet of a sharp collapse in interest, which some scientists had feared in the wake of the Brexit referendum.

Every year, the European Commission funds thousands of experienced researchers — most of them European — to undertake work in other EU countries, typically for one or two years, with individual fellowships usually worth between €150,000 (US$180,000) and €200,000. More than 9,000 academics have applied for the popular programme this year, in an application round that closed on 14 September. Of those, 1,997 people — around 22% of the total — requested to work in the United Kingdom. In 2016, the United Kingdom had received 2,211 applications, some 25% of the total that year; while in 2014, the UK share of applicants reached 28%.

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Protest, diluted

This article first appeared in Research Europe, 27/04/17

Last week’s March for Science brought together scientists and their supporters in more than 600 world cities. In 2017, a year of political upheaval, this is reassuring. Scientists are starting to raise their voice as a community, protesting against government cuts and challenging alternative facts and the ever-increasing pressure on academia to prove its impact.

However, that researchers now feel they need to remind politicians and society of their value is frightening. It is a sign of dark times when academic scientists, usually detached observers, feel compelled to speak out and carry placards.

It could even be argued that the scientific community is still not protesting loudly enough. The marches, for all the cleverness of their signage, were polite affairs. About 10,000 people turned up in London. They marched quietly and sedately to Westminster, where they dispersed by 3pm.

Talking to marchers, it was clear there was no consensus on the message. In London alone, people protested against Trump, Brexit, climate change, stem cell research and sexism. Most are valid causes for concern, but protesters could neither say how any of these concerns could be addressed, nor make a case for the crucial role scientists could play in solving these problems, and why they currently feel they can’t.

Some protesters were more to the point. Individual posters called for more evidence in policymaking. Others voiced concerns about scientific independence and the continued assaults on research budgets.

And some were in it for the fun. Dressing like the mad scientist of cliché, with lab coats and out-of-control hair, they took a stab at public preconceptions about what science is. But in this mish-mash of causes and costumes, a clear message was lacking. The organisers stressed repeatedly that they wanted “those in power” to listen. But to what? Apart from a few chants about peer review, the London march was largely silent.

Any effort to highlight the growing pressures faced by the scientific community and show the public that scientists play a crucial part in democracy is to be welcomed. The marchers brought together communities of researchers scattered all over Europe and the world, and flagged up their concerns. But the next step up must be more concrete: we need proposals for governments to become more open to, supportive of—and reliant on—scientific expertise.

The risk, if this is not done, is that scientists will appear self-serving. Compared with health centres, primary schools and elderly care, universities seem well funded. If they cannot make their case, the public might condemn scientists as ivory-towered whiners.

The march organisers said they wanted to show the world that “lots of people care”. But to truly make things better for the scientific community, this care must be turned into proposals for action. Otherwise last week’s marches, and any subsequent protests, will remain little more than a photo opportunity.

Anger and discontent do not always have to express themselves through burning cars and flying rocks. But in attempting to bring everyone inside its tent, the March for Science risks not being heard at all.

How Brexit is changing the lives of eight researchers

First published on Nature.com, 29.03.17

Contributors: Alison Abbott, Ewen Callaway, Daniel Cressey, Elisabeth Gibney, Inga Vesper

When the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union on 23 June last year, the decision triggered a period of intense soul-searching and uncertainty, not least for a research community with strong and long-standing financial and social links to the continent. Worries about science funding, residency rights and even about racist attacks took root in laboratories across the country.

But the vote also marked the beginning of a phoney war: little of substance could be done or said by the government until it triggered the previously obscure ‘Article 50’ clause, in the EU’s governing treaty, to start the official process of leaving (see ‘A slow divorce‘). On 29 March, Theresa May will do just that. Nature has spoken to eight people whose lives have been changed by the ‘leave’ vote, to see what their experiences tell us about how science will progress, post-Brexit.

Simone Immler: I’m moving to Britain, despite Brexit
Ian Chapman: I spend half of my time dealing with Brexit
Gerry Gilmore: I’m probably out of a job, but my concern is for the next generation
Jernej Ule: I may leave the UK — if I have to
Marino Zerial: Come to Germany, where funding is good
Anna Scaife: All we have left is uncertainty
Mike Galsworthy: Scientists need to offer their vision for Brexit
Dominic Shellard: Now is not the time for academics to feel powerless

I’m moving to Britain, despite Brexit

Simone Immler, evolutionary biologist, Uppsala University, Sweden

On 10 June last year, Immler interviewed for her dream job, a permanent position studying the evolution of sex, at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, UK. Immler, who is Swiss, and her Israeli husband both run labs at Uppsala University — but the UEA was dangling a pair of positions in front of them.

Then, two weeks later, the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU. “We said, ‘This can’t be true’,” Immler recalls. But after reassurance from friends in the United Kingdom that the nation would still be welcoming to immigrants, she and her husband, evolutionary biologist Alexei Maklakov, decided to make the leap. Their family moved to the United Kingdom this month.

Despite uncertainties over the outcome of Article 50 negotiations, Immler is taking a ‘glass-half-full’ perspective. She hopes that the United Kingdom will follow the example of Israel, a non-EU country that pays into funding bodies such as the European Research Council, from which both she and her husband receive support. She will maintain a lab in Uppsala for another year, so that graduate students and postdocs can continue their projects there. But as a former postdoc at the University of Sheffield, UK, she knows the benefits of free movement across Europe, and worries that she will struggle to draw graduate students and postdocs from a large pool of young scientists.

“I’m generally optimistic,” Immler says. “It would have to come to extreme measures for us to leave again. Life would have to become very difficult for non-Brits in Britain, and we’re still hopefully quite far from that.”

I spend half of my time dealing with Brexit

Ian Chapman, chief executive officer, Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, Abingdon, UK

The morning after the United Kingdom’s referendum on its membership in the EU, as other staff at the UK national laboratory for fusion-energy research walked around in a daze, Chapman was hastily making plans. His interview for a job to head the centre — which hosts the EU-funded Joint European Torus (JET) — was just days away, and the centre’s future was suddenly up in the air. “I’d made a load of preparations for things I wanted to say, and then I summarily had to rip them all up and start again,” he says.

Chapman got the job. He is now tasked with leading JET through the tumult and managing a skittish staff of around 550. The physicist estimates that at least half of his time is spent dealing with the impact of Brexit.

His main goal is to keep JET — a facility that holds the world record for fusion power — running beyond the end of its current contract in December 2018. Another is to maintain the United Kingdom’s involvement in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in southern France, for which JET is a test bed. Both tasks got harder in January, when the UK government announced that, as part of the country’s withdrawal from the EU, it would also pull out of the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom), the body that distributes EU fusion funding and manages the United Kingdom’s membership of ITER.

The decision wasn’t a complete surprise, says Chapman. But it came without warning or an obvious plan for how to maintain the United Kingdom’s fusion programme after the nation leaves Euratom. Chapman is now collecting data to help the government to work out the implications of various ways forward, which range from becoming an associate member of Euratom to funding an independent programme of research.

He also fills his hours by settling staff members’ nerves. Scientists at JET are preparing for a 2019 dress rehearsal of a fuel mix that ITER will eventually use, which should see JET break its own fusion record — but it may never happen. Routine negotiations to extend JET’s contract are on ice.

The uncertainty has not yet triggered a mass exodus, says Chapman, but some top-level staff members have accepted positions elsewhere, and candidates have rejected job offers, citing questions over JET’s future.

Despite these uncertainties, Chapman thinks that the government understands what is at stake and says that it has been responsive. But the United Kingdom’s fusion community needs a concrete signal from the government — and soon. “There’s a time window beyond which the disquiet will ratchet up, and we will start to haemorrhage capacity,” says Chapman. “That will be hugely damaging, for us as an organization and for the entire fusion community.”

I’m probably out of a job, but my concern is for the next generation

Gerry Gilmore, experimental philosopher, University of Cambridge, UK

Brexit is likely to put Gilmore out of one of his jobs. As scientific coordinator of Opticon, EU’s Optical Infrared Coordination Network for Astronomy, he plans to hand control of the centre to an institution in an EU member state.

“It’s not even a question of us making that decision,” he says. “The UK government made the decision. Now, every grant coordinated from the UK has to leave.”

Opticon makes telescope time available to scientists across Europe and develops telescope technology, including real-time observation, electronic controls and superfast cameras. Because the consortium is funded by the European Union, Gilmore fears that the United Kingdom will lose access to the brain power that it needs to stay ahead in a competitive field.

Opticon also helps to set the long-term strategic agenda of telescope-based research and infrastructure across the EU, and Gilmore worries that the United Kingdom will soon have little say in such matters.

Gilmore’s European Research Council grant is also on the line as a result of Brexit, but his main concerns lie with young researchers. He fears that the next generation of UK scientists will have to shape their careers in a greatly diminished environment, as will European researchers who could lose access to UK universities.

Universities such as Cambridge also stand to lose funding if no deal granting them access to Horizon 2020, the European Commission’s research-funding programme, is negotiated. Opticon received €8.5 million (US$9.2 million) from the EU between 2013 and 2016 alone. Even if the UK government tops up national research funding to compensate for the loss of European programmes, Gilmore says, it can never replace the inspiration that British scientists gain from working with European colleagues.

“It’s simple — if the UK leaves the EU, its scientists leave,” he says. “It’s just an incredibly stupid decision.”

I may leave the UK — if I have to

Jernej Ule, molecular biologist, Francis Crick Institute, London

Later this year, Ule’s laboratory will welcome a rare specimen — a Brit. The rest of his team hail from Switzerland, Spain, France, Italy, elsewhere in Europe and beyond, and Ule is a Slovenian citizen who has lived in the United Kingdom for a decade. “My identity is European, not Slovenian or English,” he says. “I don’t want to choose countries — it’s a bit too narrow for how I work.”

Last August, Ule’s group was among the first to move into the Francis Crick Institute, a gleaming new £700-million ($880-million) super-lab in central London. The researchers still feel a buzz when they arrive for work, but “when it comes to Brexit, the conversation turns a bit gloomy”, Ule says.

Brexit’s threat to freedom of movement is a hot topic in the lab, as is continued access to EU funding. Half of the group receives money from the European Research Council, and Ule fears the financial hit if the United Kingdom loses access to EU research funding after Brexit. But even if national funders make up the lost cash, Ule says, vying with Europe’s top researchers for EU grants also helps the lab to stay at the cutting edge. “National funding agencies don’t care if you’re the second best, as long as you’re the best in the UK,” he says.

Ule doesn’t plan to leave Britain, but says that could change if a ‘hard Brexit’ — which may put an end to EU citizens’ easy passage to and from the country — puts limits on the openness he feels his lab represents. “If it’s something that goes against my principles, then I would consider going elsewhere.”

Come to Germany, where funding is good

Marino Zerial, director, Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, Dresden, Germany

Brexit could be a boon for European research, at least in the short term, predicts Zerial. “The UK is becoming less attractive to do research, and so more people are going to consider countries in mainland Europe — particularly Germany, where the funding is so good.”

Germany’s research and development spending relative to its gross domestic product is among the highest in Europe.

Zerial expects to see an increase in applications to the large, international graduate school that is jointly run by his institute with the Technical University of Dresden, as well as in applications for postdoc and group-leader positions. “It’ll be to our benefit.”

But Brexit will hurt European science in the long run, he says. “When you lose an important piece of the European science landscape like the UK, it makes the European community weaker.”

He worries that there could be fewer funding opportunities in the United Kingdom for collaborative research with institutes in mainland Europe — and that remaining opportunities might face much more bureaucracy. “European Union funding, whatever its weaknesses, supports loads of projects, and the community treasures very much the collaborations involved,” he says.

All we have left is uncertainty

Anna Scaife, astrophysicist, University of Manchester, UK

“People treat you differently now,” says Scaife. Since the referendum, her European colleagues have been wary about starting new collaborations, owing to the uncertainty that now hangs over potential projects with UK citizens.

This cautiousness extends to both sides. Scaife and her colleagues are hesitant to participate in EU calls for proposals. She fears that she might become a liability to her colleagues’ applications to Horizon 2020, because of the extra risk of having a British institution on board. “That would be the worst thing — to see a project lose, and worry that you might be responsible,” she says.

Brexit is a constant topic of discussion in Scaife’s department, which works closely with many European organizations, including CERN, Europe’s particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, and the Atacama Large Millimetre Array in Chile, an international facility run in large part by the European Southern Observatory. Without access to EU funding and the expertise of European colleagues, Scaife worries that the United Kingdom will be sidelined in future projects. “Our networks, our contacts will continue to be able to collaborate. All we have left is uncertainty.”

But what hurts Scaife most is seeing European colleagues being made to feel unwelcome in their UK home. Some areas of greater Manchester voted ‘leave’ by a large margin, and since the referendum, many international researchers have been subjected to anti-European and anti-immigrant abuse, she says. “These people contribute to the intellectual capital of our country, so it is hard to understand that hostility. And colleagues find it very distressing.”

For Scaife, the idea that extra spending from the UK government could make up for shortfalls in EU funding and the loss of the United Kingdom’s welcoming culture is preposterous. She says that collaboration is the lubricant that drives the nation’s ideas machine. Without access to the brightest people, and without creating a positive environment for European scientists, she warns, the United Kingdom is playing a dangerous game of isolationism.

Scientists need to offer their vision for Brexit

Mike Galsworthy, co-founder, Scientists for EU

On the night of the Brexit referendum, Galsworthy watched the results come in from the ‘Britain Stronger In Europe’ campaign war room. A former research-policy analyst, Galsworthy had co-founded Scientists for EU to ensure that scientists’ voices were prominent in campaign efforts to persuade Britons to vote ‘remain’. When he returned from a television interview around midnight, after the results had begun to swing pro-Brexit, the mood had grown decidedly grimmer, Galsworthy says — “and it stayed grimmer”.

Galsworthy, who works full time for Scientists for EU, was ready for the outcome. “My main concern was to document what this means for the UK science community,” he says. Within a few weeks, Scientists for EU had collected more than 400 complaints from the research community: infrastructure and hiring freezes, foreigners turning down jobs in the United Kingdom — “dozens of stories of impact”, Galsworthy says.

Despite being on the losing side of the referendum, Galsworthy considers that his campaign to give scientists a louder voice has been successful. Before the 2015 general election, science was not on the political agenda, he says. “Science is certainly on the political radar now.” The UK government has tried to address scientists’ concerns by announcing £2 billion ($2.5 billion) per year of new funding for research by 2020, and guaranteeing support of existing EU research grants, also up to 2020, that might be jeopardized by Brexit.

But more broadly, the government has tarnished the United Kingdom’s image in the eyes of many scientists in Britain and beyond, Galsworthy says. Researchers’ concerns were not alleviated when Prime Minister Theresa May said, in a recent speech, “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.”

“This was something that doubled down on the hurt of Brexit and the fracturing that it caused, and went straight to the identity of the science community,” says Galsworthy. “She was oblivious.”

With the terms of Britain’s exit from the EU still deeply uncertain, he now hopes to galvanize researchers to offer their own vision for what science in the United Kingdom and Europe should look like. Brexit, he maintains, is an existential threat to the region’s role as a global hub for science — “unless we can be smart enough to sidestep this”.

Now is not the time for academics to feel powerless

Dominic Shellard, vice-chancellor, De Montfort University, Leicester, UK

The morning after the UK voted to leave the EU, Shellard called a meeting at De Montfort University. A thousand people turned up at just a few hours’ notice.

“There were lots of very distressed people,” he says. “There were staff who were in tears. One Polish student asked me whether I could write him a letter. I said, ‘What do you need a letter for?’. He said ‘I’m going home to Poland this weekend and I need a letter to give to the border guards at Heathrow to let me back into the country.’”

Like many university vice-chancellors in the United Kingdom, Shellard does not want the nation to leave the EU. As in other UK universities, significant percentages of his staff, his students and his research funding come from the EU. In the wake of the vote, the university sector has been wracked with nerves about all three of these elements being damaged.

Whereas some vice-chancellors have taken to writing to newspapers or issuing pleas for protection, Shellard launched a campaign he called #LoveInternational, to reassure existing and potential staff and students from the EU, as well as to protect their residency rights.

His tactics included holding a 24-hour vigil in support of EU staff and students — and more broadly against intolerance globally. Shellard also toured Europe, talking to concerned people in Nicosia, Warsaw, Stockholm, Vilnius and Berlin.

Similar to many in academia, Shellard stresses the need for universities to obtain certainty on three key issues: the rights of EU nationals residing in the United Kingdom, the status of EU students at UK universities, and European research funding. However, he doubts that universities will be at the top of the government’s priority list now that negotiations are starting.

His message to the academic community is this: instead of waiting for someone else to do something, “You can make a difference. You can engage. You mustn’t feel impotent.”

UK scientists welcome changes to controversial research reforms

First published in Nature, 28.02.2017

UK scientists who had vigorously protested against a planned shake-up of the way their country’s research is funded say they’re largely reassured after the government announced amendments to the plans.

Science minister Jo Johnson announced a package of changes last week that look likely to smooth the way for the reforms to become law — although not everyone is satisfied.

The proposed reforms would bring the country’s separate research councils together under a single, central funder, called United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI), and would create a government body to regulate what UK universities teach. The latest changes are designed to soothe fears of excessive government control over what gets funded and taught in British universities, policy experts say.

 

Most unusually, Johnson has suggested writing into law a long-held principle in UK science funding, termed the Haldane principle — that research-funding decisions should be protected from political interference. “Decisions on individual research proposals are best taken following an evaluation of the quality and likely impact of the proposals (e.g. a peer review process),” the revised law notes.

“We applaud the government’s intention to recognize that those best able to decide what should be funded are not always politicians,” says Naomi Weir, deputy director of the London-based Campaign for Science and Engineering. “It is such a difficult thing to put in legislation, and it’s good that the government is trying to do that.”

Among other amendments, the changes include promises to maintain the autonomy of universities and, according to government documents, “specify the freedoms of academic staff to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions”.

The changes show that the government has listened to scientists before “tinkering further” with the UK research-funding system, says James Wilsdon, who studies research policy at the University of Sheffield, UK, and who also chairs a lobby group, Campaign for Social Science. “This is a serious and substantial package of amendments that should go a long way to assuaging any lingering concerns,” he adds.

Point of principle

Many policy experts note that the government has not been quick to make amendments to its proposals. Criticisms were first heard in October 2016. The draft legislation passed easily through the country’s lower chamber of Parliament, the House of Commons, but has encountered fiercer resistance this year in the upper chamber, the House of Lords, many members of which have a science or education background.

“I am pleased with the amendments,” says John Krebs, a member of the House of Lords and a zoologist at the University of Oxford, UK, who last year had warned against adopting the reforms. He says that incorporating the Haldane principle is “a significant and welcome concession”, and that he is reassured by other amendments designed to protect the research councils’ autonomy and to make sure that the allocation of research funding to the various councils remains transparent.

But another House of Lords scientist, Martin Rees — an astrophysicist at the University of Cambridge, UK, who has criticized the idea of creating UKRI — says he still worries that the new body will have too much power over what gets funded.

The law will see its next hearing in the House of Lords on 6 March — and further changes might be suggested at that stage. After that, any changes have to be agreed again by the House of Commons. But the mood among UK universities is that the reforms will now go through, says Andy Westwood, director of the University Observatory in Wolverhampton, UK, a policy think tank.

Ironically, says Westwood, the writing into law of the Haldane principle could end up serving the government more than it does researchers, because it hammers out an agreed meaning for what has until now been a vague principle of independence that could be called upon whenever researchers felt threatened by government interference.

“Haldane was probably more powerful when it was not enshrined, because academics could always shape it to fit their argument,” Westwood says.

Science Europe lobby group hit by sudden exodus

29.11.2016 – Original story on Nature.com

Brussels-based advocacy group aimed to provide single voice for scientists in the EU – but is losing members.

Influential research organizations are pulling out of Science Europe, the Brussels-based advocacy group that aims to champion researchers’ interests with European Union policymakers.

All but one of France’s research-funding organizations are preparing to leave the group at the end of this year, Nature has learned — including Europe’s largest basic-research agency, the CNRS, which controls an annual budget of €3.3 billion (US$3.5 billion). Germany’s Helmholtz Association, which runs 18 national research centres, and France’s agricultural research agency (INRA) both left quietly last year.

The loss is “definitely a blow, and may be a deadly one”, says Peter Tindemans, the secretary-general of EuroScience, a grassroots association of researchers in Europe. He thinks that Science Europe is struggling to balance the different priorities of its members, because some are grant-awarding organizations, whereas others are institutes that primarily perform research. But Science Europe itself is not fazed by the exits, says its president, Michael Matlosz.

Science Europe was formed in 2011 to give the many national research organizations scattered across Europe a stronger, united voice on EU policy. Collectively, these organizations control most of the continent’s basic science funding — but, individually, it can be hard for them to navigate the Brussels lobbying jungle to influence policymakers.

Science Europe runs events to push scientists’ interests with politicians, and publishes reports on research policy. In October, for example, it released position papers on the EU’s Horizon 2020 funding programme and on open access. At the start of last year, it represented 50 organizations, but by the end of 2016, its membership looks set to have fallen to 43.

Struggling to be heard

The departing French agencies all declined to comment. But sources familiar with the situation told Nature that the organizations filed applications to leave at the end of 2015, to comply with the one-year notice period.

Matlosz told Nature that the CNRS and France’s atomic energy commission (CEA) are definitely leaving, but that the country’s medical research agency, INSERM, and its research institute for development (IRD) haven’t yet confirmed their decision. “Science Europe is a living organization, we have members coming out and in,” he said. “All members pay an annual fee to be part of our activities, so for many it depends on financial constraints.”

Matlosz is also chief executive of the national research agency (ANR), the only French organization that isn’t preparing to leave Science Europe. “We are very satisfied with it,” says an ANR spokeswoman.

The organizations that left last year give differing reasons for their exits. “In Science Europe, it was very difficult for research organizations to have a voice. At some point, it just ran itself without any involvement of the members,” says a member of staff at INRA who was involved in INRA’s departure but did not want to be named. “At INRA, we just did not have enough capacity to be in the different work groups, where you have to be strongly involved to be able to give your opinion and influence the organization’s processes.”

A price hike triggered the exit of the Helmholtz Association. Science Europe’s annual fee doubled, causing an internal review of costs and benefits, says Annika Thies, director of the association’s Brussels office. “There were several activities we considered to be positive and useful, but others of less relevance for us,” she says — although she declined to say what they were.

Repeated criticism

Science Europe has reconfigured itself a few times since its creation — causing rearrangements that have brought criticism from its members. Matlosz is its third president in three years. In 2015, the organization decided to form a single advisory committee consisting of 30 researchers from around Europe, ditching its previous structure of six committees. The final minutes of one of these dissolved groups (which provided the viewpoint of engineering and technical sciences) noted members’ regret that “Science Europe does not use the structural importance of its Member Organisations in the European research system to engage more aggressively with the European Commission on policy issues”.

The exodus may be a case of history repeating itself. Science Europe was built from two former advocacy groups: the European Science Foundation (ESF) — a funder of coordinated projects between research funders within and outside the EU — and EUROHORCS, which represented the heads of the European research councils. In 2011, many research organizations left the ESF in protest after they failed to achieve a two-thirds majority to reform and strengthen their voices. Science Europe was meant to be a response to this shake-up, with the goal of taking over the ESF’s advocacy and lobbying efforts in Brussels.

Tindemans thinks that the dissatisfaction in Science Europe may be due in part to the national funding agencies concentrating on lobbying policymakers, instead of also working together to fund joint projects, as they used to do in the ESF.

Departees from Science Europe have other bodies that can offer them support and influence in Brussels. The Helmholtz Association, for example, is a member of EARTO, the European association of research and technology organizations. INRA, meanwhile, works closely with COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology), a network that supports trans-national cooperation between European researchers.

Meanwhile, Science Europe is readying itself for a busy 2017, Matlosz says, with a focus on the mid-term review of Horizon 2020 and a planned lobbying push to support basic research in the European Research Area. “We continue to have a strong consensus on this among members, so we can speak out strongly.”

Machine-learning algorithm quantifies gender bias in astronomy

04.11.2016 – Original article in Nature

Calculation suggests papers with women first-authors have citation rates pushed down by 10%.

Citation rates in astronomy are stacked against women, a study that uses machine learning to quantify bias has found.

Researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland, estimate that, as a result of gender bias, papers whose first authors are women receive around 10% fewer citations than do those that are first-authored by men.

Gender disparities in citation patterns have been documented across science before. But researchers have not previously tried to quantify how much of the differences are the result of gender bias. For instance, men and women may publish different types of papers; women may work in different scientific fields, and may hold less-senior positions.

But the new paper, which has not yet been peer-reviewed and was posted on the arXiv preprint server on 27 October1, tries to account and correct for these factors. The authors declined to comment on the paper, because they hope to submit it to Nature Astronomy. But other specialists say that the analysis seems solid.

“The novelty of this paper is in dispelling the myth that gender disparity in citation can be attributed to specifics of the paper, rather than to gender,” says Cassidy Sugimoto, an informaticist at Indiana University Bloomington. Sugimoto has also published work on gender bias in science publications2, and says that the paper’s findings are “at once both terrible and terrific”.

Estimating gender bias

For their study, the researchers analysed 200,000 papers in 5 journals from 1950 to 2015. First, they trained a machine-learning algorithm to accurately calculate the citations for each paper first-authored by a man using as many non-gender-related factors as possible — such as the journal, field and year in which the paper was published, where the first author was located and for how many years that author had been publishing.

Then they unleashed their algorithm on the papers with female first authors. This set of papers (from 1985 onwards) had actually received around 6% fewer citations than their male-authored counterparts. But the algorithm predicted that the papers should have got 4% more citations than did those authored by men.

The authors say that the result is their “best effort” to measure gender bias, but that their results should be taken with care, because other factors might need to be weighed into their algorithm.

“This means women and men of equal quality will have unequal records,” says Meg Urry, director of Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics in New Haven, Connecticut, who gave advice to the Swiss researchers as they conducted their study.  She adds that being cited less is likely to result in fewer grants, invitations to talks and recommendation letters. “Given how heavily our hiring process depends on these metrics, it’s not surprising that women have not reached equity in academia,” she says.

Suppressed citations

A good track record of citations is essential for research career progression, so the findings could go some way towards explaining the dearth of women in senior academic positions, says Karen Masters, an astronomer at the University of Portsmouth, UK.

“I have had people tell me that they won’t shortlist for permanent faculty jobs unless the candidates have 100 citations on a first-author paper,” she says. “So, I think it’s really in getting on shortlists for jobs that this suppression in citation rate for women is going to be hurting them.”

The new study also notes that women publish 19% fewer articles than men in the 7 years after their first published paper. Astrophysicist Anna Scaife, who heads the Interferometry Centre of Excellence at Jodrell Bank observatory in the United Kingdom, says that this factor could be even more damaging than the low citation rates. “The 4–6 years following PhDs are crucial for producing the output that contributes to their first application for a permanent position,” she says.

To address the problem, Masters suggests a solution straight from the astronomer’s toolbox. The number of citations that women receive, she says, could be multiplied by 1.1 to eradicate the intrinsic bias. “We often correct systematic biases like that empirically in trends we view in astronomy,” she says. “So I think this could be treated similarly.”