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THE GRANT SYSTEM DISCRIMINATES AGAINST WOMEN Print page

OMBUDSMAN RULES THE CZECH SCIENCE AGENCY ENGAGES IN INDIRECT DISCRIMINATION

The Ombudsman JUDr. Pavel Varvařovský ruled that the conduct of the Czech Science Foundation constituted indirect discrimination and recommended major changes to the grant scheme of postdoctoral grants.

Czech grant agencies and ministries distributing competitive funding for research and development do not make any provisions regarding the possibility to suspend the implementation of a grant project or the postponement of a project’s start date on account of pregnancy and maternity/parental leave. We made a submission to the Ombudsman concerning suspicion of indirect discrimination based on sex. On 23 January 2013 the Ombudsman issued a Report on Finding Discrimination where he confirmed indirect discrimination in the Czech Science Foundation and recommended that the Czech Science Foundation take appropriate measures to ameliorate the grant system.

The Czech legislation guarantees protection against discrimination. Paragraph 2, Item 4 of the Antidiscrimination Act (Act No. 198/2009 Coll.) states: “Discrimination on the grounds of sex is also constituted by discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy or motherhood and on account of sex identification.”

In his Report on Finding Discrimination the Ombudsman criticizes the Czech Science Foundation for the following:

  1. Impossibility to postpone the start date of a grant project implementation in the event of pregnancy.
  2. Rigid rules providing for only two fixed dates (1 January and 1 July of a given year) to submit a request for an interruption of a grant, with the consequence that applicants are cut in the sum of awarded sickness insurance pursuant to Act No. 187/2006 Coll., on Sickness Insurance, as amended, which provides for social security entitlement related to childcare (to be concrete, a monetary allowance in motherhood).
  3. The obligation to notify the Czech Science Foundation in writing about any and all changes concerning the Primary Investigator which occurred during the implementation of a grant project and which could have any influence on project implementation or which in any way concern legal existence or information requested for proving the PI’s legal competence within 7 calendar days since the date when the PI learns about such a fact. The Ombudsman points to the necessity to comply with the Basic Rights and Freedoms where Article 10 guarantees the protection of private and family life, to the concrete the right to information self-determination and autonomous decision-making about personal integrity. Information about a woman’s pregnancy is confidential and constitutes sensitive personal data pursuant to provisions of Section 4, Item b) of Act No. 101/2000 Coll., on Personal Data Protection, as Amended, and as such enjoys protection pursuant to this Act.
  4. The possibility to interrupt project implementation only for one year, especially the inability to interrupt a project for less than one year. This rule does not correspond with the system of maternity and parental leave in the Czech Republic. The Ombudsman furthermore states that it is not possible to a priori expect that the results of a postdoctoral research project which is interrupted on account of parenthood would become obsolete and inapplicable.
  5. Non-existence of any transparent criteria that can be ascertained and determined in advance, according to which it would be possible adjudge whether an applicant has a chance to succeed with his/her petition to the Czech Science Foundation.


THE CONTEXT OF RESEARCH FUNDING IN THE CZECH REPUBLIC

Research in the Czech Republic is funded through institutional funding and through competitive funding (such as grant proposals). In the first case the funding is allocated directly to research-performing institutions; the second is based on the participation of researchers and/or their teams in competitions where submitted project proposals are evaluated by peers. The second type of research funding is increasingly prioritized both in the Czech Republic and globally.

Unlike regular institutional funding, competitive funding is short term. Grants last from one to five years and the usual grant duration is two to three years. Obtaining competitive funding and work on grant projects (and being their primary investigator) is an important career milestone and an item on researchers’ professional curriculum vitae. To a large extent it also attests that a researcher is worthy of obtaining further support. At the same time, participation in grant competitions is a huge time burden, as researchers are forced to seek novel sources of funding for their research through competitions.

WHAT’S THE PROBLEM

State institutions which distribute public funds for research (ministries and grant agencies) fail to address the issue of pregnancy and parenthood. If a primary investigator of a grant project needs to postpone the start date of a project on account of parenthood (concretely pregnancy, maternity and parental leave), she or he is usually told to consider termination of the grant or not starting it at all (in the event that it is an individual grant). If a project has already been started and a woman researcher becomes pregnant, she needs to interrupt the project’s implementation; however, she is usually told to hand the position of the primary investigator to another team member in cases when the project is implemented by a team, without having, however, any guarantee that the post of the primary investigator will be returned to her when she comes back after the career break for childcare. If it is an individual grant, women researchers are told to terminate the grant implementation. The argument why it is not possible to interrupt grant implementation or postpone the start date is that such research will not be later up to date and that research institutions have to show project results in the Research Information Register within a five year period given by the law. However, in many countries of Western and Northern Europe as well as in Poland and Slovenia this problem does not exist. What is necessary for solving this situation is also that the state and employer’s family policy is set up properly and that adequate childcare services are available.

In consequence, women researchers who are the ones who go on the parental leave as most women with children in the Czech Republic do, lose the opportunity to implement the grant they were awarded in a competition, cannot publish research results from the project and thus increase their professional standing. This situation constitutes indirect discrimination on the grounds of sex, as defined by the Antidiscrimination Act.

COURSE OF ACTION TAKEN BY THE NATIONAL CONTACT CENTRE FOR WOMEN IN SCIENCE

The National Contact Centre for Gender & Science has communicated about this issue with the responsible institutions and their representatives since 2005 (see conclusions of the 1st conference on women and science [in Czech only]). We have repeatedly contacted the Prime Ministers of the country (who in their position act as the heads of the Council for Research, Development and Innovations) with a request to address this issue in a comprehensive manner. Their responses have been so far negative (see the communication of the NKC for Gender & Science and the Czech Science Foundation and the Council for Research, Development and Innovations [in Czech only]).

We have concentrated our efforts on the institution which distributes the largest share of competitive funding for individual research projects: the Czech Science Foundation and concretely the postdoctoral grants because they are the only grant support intended specifically for early stage researchers in the Czech Republic. In the case of postdoctoral grants, the Czech Science Foundation applies the one-strike rule, meaning that a grant can be awarded to a given applicant only once. If a woman researcher submits a grant proposal, becomes pregnant and is awarded the grant, she is faced with a very difficult situation because if she returns the grant (which is something that the Czech Science Foundation recommends that women researchers do), she is excluded from future competitions for this type of grant. We believe that this discriminates women at the very start of their research career on the grounds of pregnancy and parenthood.

OUR ACHIEVEMENTS

  • In 2010 the Czech Science Foundation introduced the possibility to apply for an interruption of a postdoctoral grant on account of maternity/parental leave. Applications are evaluated on an individual basis by the Presidium of the Czech Science Foundation (see a letter from the President of the Czech Science Foundation [in Czech only]).
  • It was not until 2012 that, after repeated requests by the National Contact Centre for Women and Science [in Czech only], the Czech Science Foundation publicized the possibility to interrupt the implementation of postdoctoral grants: the Czech Science Foundation published this information on its website (in the FAQ section) and also in the postdoctoral grant documentation. This occurred only after the complaint was lodged to the Ombudsman regarding indirect discrimination.

 

Between 2010 and 2012 women researchers started contacting the National Contact Centre for Gender Science whose application for an interruption of the implementation of a postdoctoral grant was not granted or who were directly or indirectly dissuaded from submitting the application for an interruption of the grant implementation by staff of the Czech Science Foundation.

Therefore, in April 2012 Marcela Linkova, the coordinator of the National Contact Centre for Gender Science, lodged a complaint to the Ombudsman where she outlined the major aspects of the problem at hand (see the  Press release of the National Contact Centre for Women in Science [in Czech only]). The Ombudsman accepted to investigate the complaint  and requested detailed documentation, including contacts to women researchers who have had to deal with this situation.

 

Reception in the media

 

Here we talk to PhDr. Jana Jetmarová, Ph.D. about her dealings with the Czech Science Foundation.

Jana JetmarovaOne year ago you stood up to defend your rights and it seemed that you paved the way for other parents and especially women. Can you describe the path to the interruption of your postdoctoral grant?

As for communicating with the Czech Science Foundation, it has been quite difficult to get any concrete information about the interruption of a grant project. When I contacted them officially, the first reaction was a totally strict refusal and a claim that nothing like this was possible. Only after I started (partially because I was curious because I did not want to believe that such a discriminatory system could be in place in the Czech Republic) studying the Act on Public Support for Research and Development (Act No. 130/2002 Sb.), I managed to find that pursuant to Section 9 it was possible to extend a contract on the award of grant funding for a project. So I used this possibility and requested an extension for one year and the distribution of the first year funding over two years. It’s really too bad instead of being alerted to this possibility by the officials at the Czech Science Foundation who should know these legal norms the best (my experience, though, leads me to doubt that this is so), I had to do this complicated search myself. During the first months of the project implementation I spent practically all my powers on finding the way how to interrupt the project instead of doing my research.

Just on a side note – in May 2010 I received a notification that the interruption of the grant implementation was allowed and that I first have to submit an interim report. But the forms in the Czech Science Foundation system were first unavailable and when they made them accessible after numerous telephone calls, these forms did not make it possible to distribute the funding over two years so to complete those forms in a way that corresponded with reality and the system accepted them, was really a puzzle and I was dealing with this at the end of the 7th month of my pregnancy when a person should not get upset.

In retrospect, how do you see your negotiations with the Czech Science Foundation?

Since I submitted another request after my son was born to modify my field work which was also granted, I do not want to be totally negative about the Czech Science Foundation. Nevertheless, in this case as well, my first inquiry into this met with a strict answer that “A change in the specification of costs due to the presence of a minor family member of the principle investigator at the field trip cannot be considered to be to the purpose, efficient and economical pursuant to the Act on Budgetary Rules”. I was really in a situation when I was thinking about ending the project. With a baby several months old I could not travel to Bolivia (altitude 4,000 meters above the sea level and diseases against which my son could not have been vaccinated at this age), at the same time my social situation did not allow me to leave him at home (not to speak about the fact that something like that was just totally out of the question for me). Only after repeated informal inquiries and requests was my petition granted. So in the end the Czech Science Foundation was forthcoming but it cost me a lot of energy.

How did people around you react that you have fought for equal conditions in the grant programme for early stage researchers? Were there any reactions?

Some colleagues made positive comments but I didn’t really see much response. The reason might have also been that I dedicate my time now to my son and my research and I do not come to the office all that much.

Do you know anyone who has also asked for the exception and with what result?

I have heard about several women researchers who are in a similar situation and try to deal with it but I have no idea with what result. In any case they should persist and fight for their rights. It’s absurd that parenthood should mean the end of one’s career and loss of one’s profession. This isn’t the 19th century, is it!

We have heard that in reality the Czech Science Foundation makes it possible to only interrupt the grant for a year (as of dates in June and January) but not for a shorter period. Was this the same in your case?

I know nothing about this. As I said, my question about interrupting my project met with the response that something like that was impossible, and that work on a project can be interrupted for six months at maximum. If there is such a rule, it must have been created last year; if it existed before that, it was diligently concealed. Because of the field work I was thinking of asking for a two-year interruption but after consulting with my colleagues I abandoned this idea because the Czech Science Foundation would probably not accept such a long interruption. But I repeat, at the time of my petition no one at the Czech Science Foundation informed me about the possibility to interrupt the grant for one year.

Despite the appeals from the National Contact Centre for Gender Science, the Czech Science Foundation does not publish the information about the possibility to interrupt grant implementation. Allegedly, in the technical sciences they have never granted the exception with the argument that the progress in this field was very fast (but then it is not possible to interrupt for less than a year). What do you think about this situation?

It’s clearly discriminatory. In my opinion, the Czech Science Foundation does not want to complicate things for itself with interrupting grants. It is, of course, so much simpler to reject a request for interruption. That it leads women, and generally parents, to the dilemma family or science obviously does not interest them much.

What is your situation today? Your research is running, right…

The research is running, I try to give it the best which is, of course, sometimes very difficult together with the childcare. In summer we spent a month in the field (among Bolivian immigrants in Bergan), now we are planning to go on a shorter research trip to Austria and in December to a conference in Bordeaux. My son has been coming along with me.

Do you want to add anything?

What to add? I recommend to all potential parents who might get in a similar situation to not let themselves be dismissed, to look at the valid legislation and fight for their rights with all their might. The Czech Science Foundation is only a state institution paid with our taxes and they should behave accordingly.

Thank you for the interview!

 

Jana Jetmarová graduated from the Faculty of Arts, Charles University where she received her PhD in 2006. She specialises in social anthropology of cultures/societies of the Andean region. She is an assistant professor at the Department of Social Sciences, Faculty of Arts and Philosophy, University of Pardubice. In 2010 she received funding for a postdoctoral grant from the Czech Science Foundation focused on the research into the ethnic background of social changes related to the rule of the first indigenous president of Bolivia, Evo Morales.