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Research Funding

Removing institutional information from grant application materials could reduce reviewers’ bias

The Beckman Young Investigator Program saw fairer reviews after applicants anonymized their application materials

by Krystal Vasquez
March 25, 2024

Crowds of students walking past a building on the Johns Hopkins University campus.
Credit: Liz Albro Photography/Shutterstock
A study found that grant reviewers favor applicants from prestigious institutions like Johns Hopkins University.

A new study from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation found that removing institutional information from award application materials submitted to the Beckman Young Investigator Program reduces reviewers’ bias. The program provides research support to early-career faculty members in the chemical and life sciences.

The authors ranked over 100 institutions listed on 2,291 letters of intent submitted between 2016 and 2023 by prestige. After 2020, applicants anonymized their application before they were sent for review.

The authors found that program applicants from less prestigious universities were more likely to move to the next stage of the application process if they removed certain personal information than if they disclosed it (eLife 2024, DOI: 10.7554/eLife.92339). In addition, anonymizing applications reduced the number of awards issued to applicants from the top 25 institutions by 30%.

The study isn’t the first to find bias against less prestigious institutions in science funding programs. For example, a Science analysis of the US National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship recipients uncovered that in 2019, 31% of all awardees came from only 10 schools. Fourteen percent of recipients came from just 3 top universities.

An internal review of the Young Investigator Program prompted the Beckman study, says Anne Hultgren, executive director of the foundation and one of the study’s authors. “We did notice that it seemed like we were usually sending our awards to some of the same places over and over,” she says.

Hultgren says the Beckman Foundation wants reviewers of its award programs to focus less on applicants’ institutional affiliations and more on their scientific ideas. “Our mission, which is derived from our funder, was to find unique, out-of-the box, creative, potentially transformative ideas from anywhere,” she says.


So in 2020, the foundation asked each applicant to omit their name, gender, and institution in the letter of intent they submitted in the first step of the application process. With this anonymization, “we really did see an inward leveling of the playing field,” Hultgren says. Reviewers still seem to favor applicants from more prestigious schools over those from other institutions, but less so than before, she adds.

The foundation continues to request that applicants anonymize their applications. “This is a pretty small change for us to make, and we were able to really measure a difference,” Hultgren says. She says she hopes this study can help inform other organizations looking to create more equitable funding programs.


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