A global view of diversity in medical research
In recognition of the value diversity brings to research, medical funding bodies around the world are seeking to realize it in various ways.
In a bid to promote diversity when reviewing grant applications, the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development (AMED) requires applicants to submit an English summary of their proposal, and the funding body is actively seeking to recruit international researchers to evaluate grant proposals. This push is in recognition of current research and global trends regarding the value of diversity in research.
Diversity is good for research
There is a growing realization of the benefits that diversity brings to research. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States note that diversity improves medical research by fostering scientific innovation and discovery; improving the quality of the research; enhancing global competitiveness; increasing the likelihood that research outcomes will benefit individuals from under-served populations; increasing participation in clinical studies; and expanding public trust.
Diversity brings a broader perspective to research problems. Research is rarely a linear process and solutions can come from unexpected places. The ability to think outside the box is enhanced by having a wide range of inputs, particularly in multidisciplinary research. Another reason why diversity benefits research is that the more a view differs from our own, the more thought it tends to provoke. A diverse viewpoint can force us to reassess our views and our reasons for holding them. This continual reassessment of established theories and pet hypotheses often leads to new insights in research.
For these reasons, AMED enlists help from overseas researchers to assess grant proposals. They often bring a different perspective from medical administrators and scientists based in Japan, ensuring broader input in the evaluation process.
Comparison with situations in other countries
It is instructive to compare the situation in Japan with those in other countries. For a start, some countries do not use reviewers external to the funding body in assessing medical research grant proposals. Smaller nations such as Singapore, Australia, and Denmark tend to use external reviewers because there are not enough researchers in relevant fields to review proposals in highly specialized areas. But while the medical research community in Japan is more than large enough to just use internal reviewers, AMED also opts to use external reviewers based overseas in order to boost diversity.
Canada takes a similar approach to Japan and uses both domestic and international reviewers to evaluate research grants. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research promotes diversity by ensuring reviewers are from institutions of varying sizes and regions, and that there is a balanced mix in terms of sex and career stages. In addition, all committee members are expected to complete a training module on bias in peer review and another one on sex- and gender-based analysis in health research.
Compared to many countries, Japan’s population is relatively homogeneous. Thus, while the NIH in the United States offers special grants to redress the under-representation of African Americans and Black people in medical research in the light of a report in 2011 that highlighted the fact that their applications were less likely to be supported than those of white principal investigators — this tends to be less of an issue for Japan.
On the other hand, female researchers in Japan tend to be greatly outnumbered by their male counterparts. This is reflected in the number of female principal investigators who applied for grants. For example, in 2017/18, only about 7% of applicants for AMED CREST grants for research groups and 12% of applications for PRIME grants for individual principal investigators were female, an imbalance not unique to Japan. The Medical Research Council (MRC) in the United Kingdom is committed to addressing the under representation of women among grant proposal reviewers and has seen gradual improvement in the ratio of women that have been invited to review applications — it has increased from 22% in 2015/16 to 25% in 2019/20. This greater participation of women in medical research has had clear effects. For example, women’s health issues such as heart disease, autoimmune diseases and breast cancer have received increased attention as more women entered medical research in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s. One way that AMED has taken affirmative action has been by increasing the age that female researchers can qualify for grants for young researchers from 40 to 43.
Putting a commitment to diversity into action
There is clear evidence that diversity improves the quality of medical research, but realizing diversity requires both concerted effort and concrete action. While it involves considerable money and effort, AMED’s program of recruiting overseas researchers to participate in the review process for grant proposals is one its most tangible and effective commitments to promoting diversity when deciding which medical research projects to fund.
AMED is seeking experienced international researchers to review grant proposals submitted to AMED. If you are interested in becoming a grant reviewer, find out more here.
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