Women with children have keenly felt the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, with increased caregiver responsibilities disproportionately cutting into women’s time for paid work. On September 17, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) responded to criticisms that a policy limiting extensions on preferred status for early-career grantees disadvantages women applicants by making a change that allows extensions to an already-extended status. 

See “Pandemic May ‘Roll Back’ Women’s Gains in STEMM: NASEM Report” 

Early-stage investigators, or ESIs, are applicants for NIH research grants who have completed their research degrees or clinical training within the past 10 years and have not previously been awarded an independent NIH research award. The NIH prioritizes applicants with ESI status in reviewing applications for some grant types, including R01s.  

See “Gender Gap in Research Output Widens During Pandemic” 

Scientists can appeal for extensions to their ESI status for reasons such as medical concerns, disability, extended clinical training time, natural disasters, and military service. A petition posted by Albert Einstein College of Medicine assistant professor Peri Kurshan on September 12 states that applicants who’ve requested extensions to their ESI status due to pandemic-related disruptions “have been told by NIH that previous extensions granted because of childbirth make them ineligible for the same amount of COVID-related extension.” (emphasis source’s). The petition calls the policy “discriminatory” toward women with small children, and urges the NIH to change it. 

Kurshan tells Inside Higher Ed that she requested a three month extension plus an additional six month extension to make up for the time lost by her lab shutdown during lockdown followed by reopening with limited operations. She was only granted three months, and found out this was due to extensions she’d already been granted after the births of her two children; the former NIH policy would not allow extensions while already on what would be considered extended time. Kurshan tells the outlet that one-quarter of the more than 400 signatories to the petition indicated they’d also been personally affected by the policy. 

Within a week of the petition’s posting, the NIH issued a statement citing updates to an FAQ on ESI status to clarify its approach to granting extensions. The revised FAQ page states that the “ESI Extension Committee will consider requests for life events that occurred during the previously granted extension period that fall outside of the initial 10-year eligibility timeframe.” A statement about the change from NIH’s deputy director for extramural research, Mike Lauer, also states that, “effective immediately, NIH will approve an ESI extension of one year for childbirth within the ESI period.” 

“We understand that life does not happen sequentially, thus the FAQ have been revised to allow those who are already on an extension to request an additional extension should circumstances require,” says Lauer in the statement. “We want these policies to work and are committed to providing our early career investigators with as much support as possible, especially during these trying times.”