Nearly half of female scientists in the United States leave full-time research after having their first child, owing to increased family responsibilities that often conflict with workplace expectations. But an initiative from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) aims to help junior scientists to navigate family commitments and major life challenges by offering supplementary grants that permit them to step away from the laboratory for up to one year.

The scheme, announced in January, provides up to US$50,000 to NIH-funded postdocs and to principal investigators who have their first independent NIH grant, such as the ‘bread and butter’ R01. Scientists experiencing “critical life events”, such as giving birth or caring for a sick relative, can use the money to keep the lab running in their absence by buying equipment or hiring help.

“It’s a huge step forward,” says Abigail Stewart, a psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who studies gender and science. Studies show that, although women and men receive NIH postdoc grants at roughly the same rate, only 26% of these women obtain R01s at the completion of their postdoc, compared with 35% of men. These findings point to the ‘leaky pipeline’ in the scientific enterprise, in which female researchers drop out of science at a higher rate than do male researchers because they cannot meet their family obligations while spending long hours in the lab.

Because biomedical researchers often have to complete several postdoctoral fellowships and, on average, receive their first R01 at age 43, early-career scientists who hope to have families are particularly likely to leave research. “At that stage, an individual has invested a lot of years in their training, and they’ve passionately loved their field for a very long time,” Stewart says. “Having this type of funding available could make it more imaginable to more women scientists that they can have a full life with a family.”

Read the full article at Nature.