Primal Numbers – The Boys and the Bees

Let me tell you ’bout the boys and the bees. It’s the same as the birds and the bees (sex and biology and all that stuff) except there aren’t any girls. At least not in the research lab, where testing is almost always done on male subjects, from fruit flies to humans. There are big plans afoot to change that bias?and the backlash is even more proof that the change is long overdue.

You might be surprised to learn that biology research has such an overwhelming imbalance. After all, science is about testing theories, and a big part of that includes correcting for possible bias in research. Whether it’s a study on cancer in lab rats or the effects of exercise on humans, the average person can be forgiven for assuming that researchers don’t reach conclusions based on only one half of a species.

But, to an incredible degree, that’s exactly what happens?especially in preclinical trials, which are the precursor to research that uses human subjects. As this Globe and Mail article explains, the reliance on male testing (right down to cell samples) has enormous potential to skew lab results. So much so that the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has announced new criteria for handing out research funds. Beginning this October, researchers who apply for grants “must report their plans for balancing male and female cells and animals in preclinical studies.”

The NIH aren’t the only ones trying to level the biomedical playing field. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, students can now enroll in a postdoctoral fellowship in feminist biology. Janet Hyde, director of the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Research on Gender and Women, explained in a New York Magazine interview what the postdoc is all about.

In short, feminist biology has two main aims. First, it “identifies gender bias in traditional biology.” And second, it builds “new theories and new research that does away with these biases and leads to a more balanced biology that takes women into account.”

An example Hyde uses is the clinical trials that tested the effect of baby aspirin on heart attack and stroke risk. As she notes in the interview, the trials only used male samples. The assumption, as with so much biomedical research, was that the findings would apply to women just the same (as researchers have since learned, they don’t).

In other words, it’s about who the research is being done on, not who’s doing the research.

And that’s where critics are missing the point. Like Christina Hoff Sommers, who dismisses the idea of feminist biology in this video for the American Enterprise Institute. One of Sommers’s critiques is that women “have far surpassed men in earning biology degrees.” She also notes that women are “flourishing and winning Nobel Prizes in that field.”

True enough. But what does that have to do with the overwhelming use of males for test subjects?

Whether it’s a man or a woman doing the research, the fact remains that, as the journal Nature reports, “the over-reliance on male animals and cells in preclinical research obscures key sex differences that could guide clinical studies.”

Ultimately, it’s not the feminist label that matters. It’s the science?the ability to account for or remove a bias that could affect results, whether the field is biology or chemistry. And when it comes to the boys and the bees, it’s a bias that needs to go.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.