Guest post by science writer Kayt Sukel
Earlier this year, the National Institutes of Health called for a sweeping policy change demanding that sex differences be addressed in future research programs funded by the agency [see Dana story, NIH Calls for ‘Sea Change’ Regarding Sex Differences in Research]. Most applauded the move as a vital first step in transforming how sex differences are currently handled in biomedical studies. But some worried that without proper funding, scientists would have difficulty complying with the new mandates.
“Money is a critical component of all this,” said Jill Goldstein, director of research for the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology and Harvard Medical School. “There has to be funding to focus on sex differences or else it’s hard to see how it is really going to happen.”
Today, the National Institutes of Health announced it has awarded more than $10 million in supplemental funding to help grantees better investigate the effects of sex in their research.
This investment shows that the agency is putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to considering sex as a fundamental variable in research, says Janine Clayton, director of the NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health.
“We have heard from scientists who are concerned about how they will be able to study both sexes,” she says. “It’s important to note that these new investments—coupled with NIH’s ongoing support of research that takes sex into account—are helping us go deeper, enabling the transformative shift that can overcome gaps in our knowledge of female biology.”
The supplemental awards were given to 82 different grantees whose research is not primarily focused on sex differences, Clayton says. Rather, they are the kind of scientists who understand the importance of accounting for sex as a variable in their own studies. The corresponding projects are pre-clinical (before application in humans) and include the fields of immunology, neural circuitry, and behavioral health. With these supplemental awards, these researchers can now include more rigorous balancing of sexes in their data collection and analysis.
While Clayton is excited about this step, she says that these supplemental awards are only a partial solution to ensuring that sex differences are being thoroughly examined from now on.
“These awards fund researchers to add consideration of sex to existing studies. In the long-term, we want scientists to take sex into account from the very start,” she says.
To do so, the NIH has sent out a Request for Information to researchers and other stakeholders to gather input on how to best implement the new sex differences policy. Clayton says the required “sea change” won’t happen overnight but it is happening.
“We know sex matters. By asking preclinical researchers to take sex into account, NIH will continue to deliver the kind of rigorous science that drives the medical advances we need,” she says. “We are taking action on multiple fronts, demonstrating our commitment to moving the needle toward better health by pursuing the best science. Science is better with both sexes, and by studying both sexes, we learn how best to deliver the patient-centered care that makes Americans healthier.”