Published on: March 12, 2021
by Lynn Posluns for The Hill Times:
At a time when humanity copes with a once in a century public health crisis, the theme for International Women’s Day (IWD) 2021 carried a poignant resonance; “#ChooseToChallenge.” As IWD organizers describe it, “We can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality. We can all choose to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements.”
It is a choice that is all the more relevant after a year of living with a pandemic that has inflicted unequal consequences—striking people of colour more harshly and causing disproportionate economic harm to women.
Gender bias is a problem that goes beyond economics, reaching all aspects of our lives, including scientific research and health care. Our educational institutions are turning out brilliant female scientists, yet according to UNESCO, less than 30 per cent of scientific researchers in the world are women.
Our battle against one of the most prevalent and growing diseases facing humanity is also marked by unfairness. Dementia afflicts the sexes unequally: the Alzheimer Society of Canada estimates that about 70 per cent of Canadians with Alzheimer’s disease are women. Yet, traditionally, scientific research has focused on men, right down to using male lab rats. The male majority in science has neglected the female majority in dementia.
It is an inequity that more and more of us are challenging.
The charity I lead, Women’s Brain Health Initiative (WBHI), funds research that explores the differences between the brains of women and men. Along with many others, we have been calling for gender equity in scientific research, not only because it is right and just, but because it is better, more complete science.
Our voices are being heard. A funding arm of the federal government, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), now requires that all researchers applying for grants explain how sex differences will be considered in their research.
Political leaders are listening. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s 2019 mandate letter to Health Minister Patty Hajdu specified that funded research should “integrate sex- and gender-based analyses.”
Here is an area where Canadians can, in the words of IWD organizers, celebrate women’s achievements.
It is not widely known that, thanks to the efforts of many, Canada is now recognized as an international leader in the emerging and important field of research into sex differences in brains. The University of Toronto is home to the Wilfred and Joyce Posluns Chair in Women’s Brain Health and Aging. Led by the remarkable Dr. Gillian Einstein, it is the first research chair in the world to focus on this specific area.
While we have made serious progress, much more remains to be done.
WBHI and one of its funding partners Brain Canada, provide crucial support to many researchers exploring sex and gender differences. In our recent, and wildly successful Stand Ahead fundraising campaign, Brain Canada generously provided $250,000 in matching funds.
Working together, WBHI, Brain Canada, and CIHR have just launched a major new funding opportunity, one that aspires to showcase the talents of Canadian researchers on a global stage. It is a competition launched by the European Union’s Joint Programme-Neurodegenerative Disease Research (JPND). While not well known to the general public, JPND is a world-leading research initiative involving 30 member countries that are pooling their resources to make a big impact.
JPND has issued a transnational call for projects exploring a crucial aspect of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s: “research aimed at the detection, measurement and understanding of early disease indicators related to neurodegenerative diseases, with potential for the development of new diagnostics or interventions.”
In plain language, JPND is calling upon scientists from around the world to find new ways of detecting Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases earlier in the hope we can treat them better. Member organizations have provided 19-million euros (more than CAD$29-million) in funding for this call.
WBHI, Brain Canada, and CIHR are collectively committing up to $999,000 to fund up to three teams of Canadian scientists to compete for the JPND funding. All the projects will include sex and gender analysis.
We are doing it because we believe in Canadian researchers and we believe in the intrinsic value of sex and gender research. In the spirit of International Women’s Day 2021, we #ChooseToChallenge gender bias because doing so is not only good for women, but good for us all.
Lynn Posluns is the founder and president of Women’s Brain Health Initiative.
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