Report on NIH Funding Shows Some Institutes Support Sex Differences Research, But Many Perform Poorly

May 10, 2005

Applied Clinical Trials

Studies of Health Differences between Women and Men Appear Stagnant, but Model for Success Exists

WASHINGTON, D.C. (May 10) - The National Institutes of Health's (NIH) support of research on biological health differences between women and men has remained low in recent years despite growing evidence of the importance of sex differences, according to a report released today by the Society for Women's Health Research, a Washington, D.C.-based national advocacy organization.

Some institutes, such as the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), support hypothesis driven research to understand the similarities and differences between women and men, according to the report. These institutes have mechanisms in place to foster such research. However, grants awarded for the study of sex differences represent a very small percentage of the total number of NIH grants awarded. No institute had more than eight percent of its funded grants focused on sex differences during the report period.

"We looked at NIH research grants awarded between 2000 and 2003 and found that, across all institutes, an average of just three percent of grants focused on sex differences," said Sherry Marts, Ph.D., the Society's vice president for scientific affairs and an author of the report. "Given the growing body of body of literature on sex differences, external reports about NIH practices, and the NIH's internal efforts to promote this research, we had hoped to see higher and increasing levels of funding for this important area of research."

While the number of research grants awarded by NIH for sex differences studies hovered around three percent from 2000-2003, the total number of grants awarded by the institutes increased by nearly 20 percent during the same time period.

"We are concerned that the average number of grants focused on sex differences did not gradually rise over the course of the observed four years," Marts said. "We are heartened, however, by the work of institutes like NIAAA, NIDA and NIMH, all of which address mental health and behavioral issues. It is no coincidence that research on sex differences in areas such as the biological basis of addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression has advanced significantly in the recent past. The advances in research stemming from these institutes' support validate sex-based research."

Surprisingly, it is the institutes with the largest budgets that appear to be supporting very little or no research on sex differences. Of the eight institutes with the lowest percentage of grants for sex and gender differences (1.29 percent or lower), at least five - the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute - include in their mission statements focus on conditions (sexually transmitted diseases, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, lung cancer, melanoma) and biological systems (cardiovascular, pulmonary, gastrointestinal, nervous, and endocrine) that are known to exhibit significant sex differences.

"Sex differences research should be a part of the portfolio of nearly all of the existing NIH institutes and centers," Marts said. "They must carefully consider ways to promote interest and progress in sex differences research among their extramural program staff, and their grantees. They can, for example, establish extramural program positions to determine whether sex differences should be a focus of program announcements; issue requests for proposals that have hypothesis-driven sex differences research as the primary focus; offer grant supplements to investigators to add exploration of sex differences to currently funded projects; and track publications reporting on sex differences that result from the research they fund."

The report was released in conjunction with "Sex Differences in Health Awareness Day," the Society's national health observance to draw attention to key differences in health between women and men that are overlooked or misunderstood, and National Women's Health Week, which runs from May 8-14.

The Society for Women's Health Research is the nation's only not-for-profit organization whose mission is to improve the health of women through research, education and advocacy. Founded in 1990, the Society brought to national attention the need for the appropriate inclusion of women in major medical research studies and the need for more information about conditions affecting women disproportionately, predominately, or differently than men. The Society advocates increased funding for research on women's health; encourages the study of sex differences that may affect the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease; promotes the inclusion of women in medical research studies; and informs women, providers, policy makers and media about contemporary women's health issues. Visit the Society's Web site at www.womenshealthresearch.org for more information.