Jun 17, 2022

How Grantmakers Can Make Science More Diverse

Changing how organizations design potential grant opportunities can help open them up to a more diverse applicant pool.

By Eunice Mercado-Lara and Greg Tananbaum

The Open Research Funders Group (ORFG) has been working to promote open science since 2016. This is a worthy cause, freeing critical information and data to accelerate discovery and innovation. Yet over the last two years—galvanized by the national reckoning brought about the 2020 George Floyd murder and subsequent protests—we have been focused on taking this a step farther, looking beyond making research outputs more accessible to actually trying to shape funding processes to be more transparent, equitable and inclusive. This isn’t an academic exercise. Getting this right could profoundly aid scientific research and its ability to help humanity and the world flourish. Hopefully, this work will point to some promising actions that other philanthropies can take over time to optimize their grantmaking, expand their networks, and ultimately contribute to a much more open and trustworthy research ecosystem.

In general, philanthropies are aware that there is room for improvement in how they make grants. Too often, money pours into the same labs and funds the same researchers and types of studies that it always has, leaving scientists at small institutions and in non-WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) countries with inadequate resources and few opportunities to pursue worthy research. Through our work with eleven philanthropies, including Templeton World Charity Foundation, we have been able to connect and engage with members of traditionally marginalized communities within the scientific research ecosystem to understand their experiences as grant applicants. This has helped us identify a number of specific inefficient or inequitable aspects of the traditional grantmaking lifecycle.

There are myriad ways in which we are losing quality grant applicants or prospective applicants at the top of the funnel, such as calls for proposals that are laden with technical jargon, application windows that favor the western academic calendar, or documentation requirements that those without support staff may struggle to meet. In an era when society is being torn asunder, the planet is on fire, and we have a pandemic that is entering its third year, we need to make sure we are engaging the world’s brightest and most creative researchers, regardless of where they are. We simply cannot afford to rely on the old models that have brought us to the brink. These are existential challenges, and so to intentionally or unintentionally cut off avenues of participation to entire parts of the scientific community is self-defeating.

Our Process

From the beginning, the Open Research Funders Group has been focused on helping philanthropies to engage with each other and understand how to develop, deploy and advance open science policies. In our recent work on equitable and inclusive funding, we and our partner organizations have taken an experimental approach, working with the community to identify thirty-five potential interventions — how programs are developed and socialized, grant reviews are conducted, funded research is disseminated, and award alumni are supported — which we believe may render grantmaking processes more open and equitable. The eleven participating philanthropies will each test a self-selected subset of these interventions over the next year. Some of these approaches may be successful, others may fail to achieve what we want, and still others may have unintended consequences. But through this experimental framework, we hope to identify best practices, actionable intelligence, and tough lessons learned for foundations and grant-makers interested in improving their processes.

The following are among the ways in which funders will be exploring interventions:

  • Engaging with diverse channels to disseminate program announcements. Organizations will develop creative strategies for identifying traditional gaps in their applicant pools, as well as individuals and organizations positioned to play a partnership role in bridging these gaps.  The emphasis will be on developing collaborative relationships with these partners, valuing and compensating them for their time and expertise, and engaging in a non-extractive manner. 
  • Lowering barriers to engagement. Organizations will examine their application requirements to ensure that processes, timing, and language do not create undue barriers to participation. This may mean reducing the amount of paperwork a potential grantee has to do during the initial phases of applications or extending the timeline of grant applications. Smaller organizations or individuals coming from marginalized communities may not have the resources that those in more prominent organizations do to apply for grants. Reducing the amount of supporting material required to apply and being very clear and transparent about evaluation rubrics can help open up opportunities to a more diverse applicant pool.
  • Addressing unintended biases. Since grant review is conducted by people, it is naturally influenced by the implicit biases, assumptions, and prejudices of people. In the process of creating policies, defining expectations, and writing recommendations on how certain processes should and should not be executed, people often involuntarily replicate power structures that reinforce the disenfranchisement and exclusion of individuals, groups of individuals, as well as entire nations. Funders in this program will work to ensure that those evaluating grant proposals are comfortable with exploring and identifying their biases and assumptions, and, importantly, that they are committed to mitigating and eventually eliminating them. This could take the form of asking reviewers to watch a video introducing the core values of the philanthropy. Or, it may mean providing additional guidance on how to avoid bias in reviews, such as by reminding reviewers not to assume English is the first language of the grantee. In this case, reviewers should be encouraged to focus on the ideas themselves, rather than assuming that spelling or grammatical errors are the result of laziness or lack of quality.
  • Providing additional support to grantees and alumni. Diversity efforts often focus on the pipeline — getting more applicants from more diverse backgrounds to apply for grants — but overlook the potential gains that can be made by nurturing a strong, diverse alumni network. What kind of resources are available to alumni? How can they be supported long-term?

These are just a few of the interventions that our partner organizations will be testing. While every organization will not use every tactic, across all of them, we will be able to test dozens of ways to potentially improve the grantmaking lifecycle. Progress won’t be made overnight, but the lessons learned over the next year will be key to improving diversity outcomes in the future, and we believe the scientific community — and the world — will be a better place for it.

The Open Research Funders Group (ORFG) is a partnership of leading philanthropic organizations committed to the open sharing of research outputs. Eunice Mercado-Lara is the Open & Equitable Civic Science Fellow for ORFG; Greg Tananbaum is the Founder & Director of ORFG.