Soil science. A man’s world?

I am a female soil scientist (a soil ecologist, more specifically). And while traditionally the field of soil science has been dominated by men, I’d like to think that women are catching up. Certainly in the labs where I have worked in the last 10 years, women have dominated the postdoc and PhD positions, although this trend yet has to reach the more senior, permanent academic posts. (Unfortunately, there are many reasons why it might not.)

And I couldn’t help but notice that in a recent NERC strategic call for soil science grants (within the larger Soil Security and SARISA programmes), all eight grants that were awarded had male principal investigators. (And that is on top of the fact that all other projects in these two programmes, which were funded about two years ago, are also led by men.)

And because of this traditional male domination of soil science, I thought that maybe, just maybe, and hopefully (in a way), this might just be a true representation of the gender balance of the applications, and of the wider UK soil science community.

So I inquired. And these are the numbers.

Out of 34 applications, 11 were led by female principal investigators – which means that grants led by women made up a reasonably healthy 32% of all grants submitted. And this number is actually representative of the gender balance of the members of the British Society of Soil Science (which assume to be a representation of the UK soil science community as a whole): women make up 30% of its members.

But none of these applications led by women were successful in getting funded. While the female submission rate was 32%, the success rate of female applications was 0%. And while it is well known that grants submitted by women often have lower success rates, this is a pretty low number. I made a graph to visualise it for you, just in case it wasn’t clear yet.


The number of applications and the number of grants awarded in the latest round of Soil Security small grants (between £150k and £250k), split for male and female principal investigators.

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On gender bias in research funding

I have never, in any way, in any shape or form, experienced sexism in my career. I have never though that I could not do something because I am a woman. In primary school and high school, never once made anyone a distinction between boys and girls and their abilities, or future career aspirations. At university, I never gave the fact that I am a woman any thought. And during my PhD and postdoc, OK, maybe I started thinking about having children at some point, and maybe that seemed complicated (I now know that it is certainly not straightforward). But never, never, have I experienced any form of harassment, or bias, or being disadvantaged, or not being taken seriously, because of my gender. Despite my gender, I am generally doing quite well in my career.

But it might be that I am, unknowingly, disadvantaged in receiving the research grants that I am applying for.

But last year, the BBSRC, who fund my research, published a report ‘Towards a better understanding of issues affecting grant applications and success rates by female academics’. This report clearly shows not only that fewer women apply for BBSRC research funding, but also that their success rate is lower than that of male applicants. This is particularly the case with the applications for strategic LOLA (longer larger) grants, which are considered to be more senior grants. A notable exception are the fellowships, which are aimed early career scientists (and of which I am a recipient), in which female applicants are more successful.

Then, a couple of days ago, I read an article that essentially shows the same trend for NIH grants. While there was no difference in funding rates for start-up grant applications, when women applied for grant renewals, they received lower scores than men. This was despite the fact that these grant applications were more likely to receive praise in their written feedback from the panel.

Triggered by these two reports, I decided to have closer look at the gender balance of research grants of some other funders – particularly the ones that I might apply for.  Continue reading

A little bit of background on my latest paper

In my latest paper, Extensive management promotes plant and microbial nitrogen retention in temperate grassland, published in PLoS ONE last month, we show that traditionally managed, species rich haymeadows lose less nitrogen with drainage water from their soils than more intensively managed grasslands. This is important, because nitrogen that leaches from the soil can pollute ground and surface water, reduce plant species diversity, and cause problems for human health if concentrations in drinking water are getting too high.

In this paper, we used both extensive field observations and a mechanistic glasshouse experiment to show that traditional haymeadows have lower nitrogen leaching because of more uptake of available nitrogen in plant roots and in microbes. Specifically, we found that a greater biomass of soil fungi increased microbial nitrogen uptake, and that this in turn increased the retention of nitrogen retention in soil.

These results confirm an ecological theory, namely that ecosystems with a more fungal-dominated microbial community are more efficient in their nitrogen cycling, and have thus lower nitrogen losses. This is not a novel theory at all – in fact, it is often assumed to be true, but it has never before been experimentally tested. To illustrate this, in this Science paper, it is said that ‘Because fungal-based soil food webs promote less leaky nutrient cycles that are more retentive of nutrients than do bacterial-based food webs…’ and subsequently, a paper by Coleman et al. from 1983  is cited. However, on further inspection, this appears to be a review paper, which by no means proves that this theory is correct. Moreover, it is not possible to adequately test this theory, since it is not possible to take the microbial community out of its environment, and thus it is impossible to test whether it is the composition of the microbial community that is responsible for lower nitrogen leaching, or its environment, for example the amount of organic matter in the soil.

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