Heads of research councils adopt new gender mission

Global action aims to advance women in science and integrate gender dimension in research

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Heads of 50 research councils from around the world met in New Delhi, India, May 25-27 for the fifth annual gathering of the Global Research Council, hosted by Research Councils UK (RCUK) and the Indian Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB). The aim was to share best practice and discuss research funding policy issues, and in particular equality and status of women in research.

Two aspects were at the top of the list:

  • How to improve participation and promotion of women in the research workforce, including addressing the longstanding dominance of certain demographics in academic culture and historical obstacles to women’s participation within particular disciplines and fields of research.
  • How to improve the quality of science by promoting the integration of the gender dimension in research design and in the analysis of research outcomes.

As part of the GRC discussions, the National Research Foundation (NRF) of South Africa hosted on a side event under the theme “Global Research Council Policy Dialogue: Exploring Practical Approaches to Applying the Gender Lens in STI in Africa.” The goal was to showcase practical approaches for successful interventions to support gender considerations in research content and outcomes, in reviews and evaluation of grant applications, and in scholarly publishing. The meeting included interactive debate with young scientists on practical approaches to promote science and technology development on the African continent.

I was invited by the NRF to talk about how gender sensitive research can improve the design and implementation of measures for achieving the targets of the UN Sustainable Development goals (SDGs). The importance of understanding the effects of biological and sociocultural female-male difference on the implementation of SDGs targets was raised in the report titled: The Role of Gender-based Innovations for the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Toward 2030: Better Science and Technology for All, which Dr. Heisook Lee from WISET in South Korea and I edited, and which was published in January. Contributing to the report were 27 international experts who participated in past Gender Summit events.

The aim of my talk was to show that at stake was not only ensuring the same quality of research outcomes for women and men but also the opportunity to achieve important cross-cutting impacts for society and the environment. By looking at the SDG targets in a gender-sensitive way, the experts said, we can recognize how biological and socio-cultural differences between women and men are intrinsically intertwined with poverty, hunger, health and wellbeing, maternal death, climate change adaptation, environment, and peaceful societies. Consequently, we must ask when planning interventions to tackle the SDGs: Will it work equally for women? Will it work equally for men? And, use when formulating solutions the best scientific evidence to ensure that this is so.

But there is more. Human life cannot exist outside an environment that can sustain it. So we must not ignore our responsibility for ensuring the health and sustainability of natural ecosystems, including biodiversity, in all their aspects. For this, we need to understand how sexual reproduction and maturation of plants and animals are regulated, in both domestic and wild species, and how interdependencies between them ensure ecosystem wellbeing.

An example from agriculture

A good insight into these relationships, and an example of cross cutting impacts, can be gained from the following agricultural example. It is well known that availability of pollinators improves production and quality of crops therefore more food can be grown with less land and fertilizer. The cross cutting impact is that beekeeping and honey making can in turn provide subsistence farmers — the majority of whom are women — with an additional source of income. It is also known that certain types of flowers are very attractive to bees, so planting them near crops will enhance pollination success. Farmers can use these flowers to make natural scents for the perfume industry, or used them for compost. Research also shows that female and male flowers use different chemical signals to attract bees, which can inform measures to help enhance pollination success. Finally, female and male flowers have also different ways of protecting themselves from pathogens; knowing how can be applied to developing natural methods of protecting crops from diseases without depending on artificial pesticides, which will be better for the environment.

I was very pleased to have had the opportunity to present the new scientific understanding of how sex-gender knowledge can influence development outcomes, and in particular that it can enhance the success of implementation measures for SDGs targets. Research funders have an important role to play in ensuring that science does provide the knowledge needed, which the experts have shown it can. This is an opportunity also to advance interdisciplinary research and to increase the number of women taking leading roles in research, innovation and development, the benefits of which are now well evidenced by scientific studies. For example, studies have shown that when teams are gender balanced, the team’s collective intelligence improves through better communication, availability of diverse problem solving styles, and more balanced attitudes to risk.

I want to thank Elsevier for enabling me to attend the NRF meeting by recommending my invitation and providing support for my travel and accommodation costs. Now, we need to find ways of helping research funders around the world put their new mission to advance women and gender dimension in research into productive actions.


Photo courtesy of the National Research Foundation (NRF).

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