How to prevent unconscious bias in Grant Funding

January 31, 2023

The awarding of funds should be based on merit but unfortunately, bias still creeps into grant funding decisions; this is due to the fact that it is largely unconscious. As a result, outcomes may be unfair, regardless of the positive intentions of reviewers.

This article will explore the occurrence of bias in grant funding, how to identify it, and best practices for preventing it.

What is Unconscious Bias?

Unconscious bias is when we judge or make decisions based on thought patterns or assumptions that we are not aware of. Our brains are wired to take shortcuts when it comes to cognitive processing, hence the occurrence of unconscious bias.

The brain absorbs much more information than we are aware of, such as cultural values and the attitudes of those around us. But that’s not all – the brain has a habit of expecting the future to replicate the past.

When we frequently observe two different variables occurring together, we expect to see that combination occur again in future. For example, take the variables ‘scientist’ and ‘man’; if we are only aware of male scientists as we grow up, we will expect to see that pairing in future. Therefore, we are likely to have preconceived expectations of others based on what our environment has presented to us throughout our lives.

Another factor to consider is the in-group/out-group phenomenon. The in-group is generally the group we would like to belong to; we have a positive bias towards them and a negative bias towards outsiders. This can mean that we can be biased against those who are of the same demographic as us i.e., women being biased against women. Referring back to the above example of male scientists, a female scientist may perceive male scientists in a preferential way compared to female scientists due to their affinity with the in-group (male scientists).

Since the individual is not aware of unconscious bias, it can be particularly difficult to address. For that reason, it is important to implement strategies for detecting it.

Familiarity Bias

 Familiarity bias is a specific type of mental shortcut. It refers to the unconscious preference of working with applicants that the funder is already familiar with and/or has worked with before. Even if previous grantees performed well, it is important to review the capabilities of new applicants to ensure the furthering of the funder’s mission.

Conflicts of Interest

Related to unconscious bias, conflicts of interest may influence decisions. Whilst this may be a conscious process, it can operate on a somewhat unconscious level. For example, the reviewer – unintentionally – may favour applicants whose values align with their personal values or who operates in an area they are personally interested in. By allowing decisions to be swayed by personal preferences, funds may be awarded to an organisation that does not have the means to make effective use of them.

Detecting and Avoiding Biased Decision-Making

Ensuring that review boards consist of diverse decision-makers is important, but it is not a complete solution. We do not know what unconscious bias is affecting others, as illustrated in the example about female scientists having a positive bias towards male scientists. In other words, we don’t know who each individual considers their in-group to be.

In order to avoid biased decision-making, funders must raise awareness about the topic of unconscious bias and challenge reviewers to reflect on their own decision making processes.

Another common bias that occurs is the assumption that others are more biased than oneself, which makes it essential for bias to be called out. There should be no shame involved in this process, as unconscious bias is an evolutionary response which affects everybody.

Providing sufficient time for decisions to be made helps prevent mental shortcuts from occurring. Therefore, always ensure that reviewers have time to thoroughly review each case.

In addition, identifying information can be withheld from reviewers, ensuring they only have access to information that is strictly related to the applicant’s merit i.e., the proposal, financial information and supporting evidence (this may also help to prevent familiarity bias).

Finally, FlexiGrant has an in-built diversity monitoring function which helps a funding organisation to highlight where bias may have occurred during the review stages, and this is based on pseudonymous data captured at key stages of the process.

Possible Implications of Biased Decision-Making in Grant Funding

Biased decision-making has a variety of potential implications, both for applicants and funders.

Organisations may be denied funding that could be critical to their success, while funders may miss out on projects that are beneficial to their mission. Biased decision-making could also lead to negative public perceptions of the funder. Finally, there is a chance that unconscious bias may further entrench existing disparities.


Unconscious bias has a hidden influence on our decisions, but reflection is the key to making it visible. To truly award grants based on the appropriate factors, funders must raise awareness about unconscious bias and encourage staff to call out bias when they see it occurring in others.

Providing reviewers with only the proposal, financial information and supporting evidence – and no identifying information – is one of the most effective steps to take. In addition, making sure they have sufficient time to examine each application is key to preventing mental shortcuts from swaying decisions.

As mentioned, FlexiGrant has a feature that helps you to detect where bias may have occurred in previous review processes. It also frees up time so that personnel can focus on making good decisions without being distracted by administrative work.

Contact us today to learn more.

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