Integrating sex and gender in medical research

The Medical Research Foundation is delighted to have joined the UK research sector to support a first-of-its kind sex and gender policy.

Medical Research Foundation statement of intent

The Medical Research Foundation is today (11/12/2023) publishing a statement of intent signalling our support for the introduction of dedicated sex and gender policies for biomedical, health, and care research in the UK.

We join with organisations across the UK medical research sector to publish this statement, which was produced in collaboration with The George Institute for Global Health’s Medical Science Sex and Gender Equity (MESSAGE) project.

High-quality, reproducible and inclusive medical research requires consideration of sex and gender at every stage, from study design and participant recruitment to data analysis and transparent reporting of results. Sex and gender influence the conditions people develop, the symptoms they experience, the treatment they receive, and their overall outcomes.

The current evidence base has relied on studies conducted primarily on male cells, animals and people, contributing to persisting standards of worse care and worse outcomes for cis women and sex- and gender-diverse people.

Understanding sex and gender differences, as well as where similarities exist, is therefore essential to ensure that treatment and care is safe and effective for all people.

Dr Alison Simmons, Director of Research at the Medical Research Foundation, said: "The first step is to recognise that, by closing the sex and gender gap in medical research, we can fund higher quality science which can make a genuinely life-changing difference for women, as well as men."

In contrast to other high-income countries – notably Canada, the United States and European nations under Horizon Europe – the UK has no standard, unified guidance for researchers about how to consider sex dimensions in cell and animal studies, and sex and gender dimensions in human studies.

To address this need, the MESSAGE project is bringing together research funders, regulators, researchers, patient and public groups, academic publishers, and the Department of Health and Social Care to co-design a sex and gender policy framework.

We welcome the launch of this framework in 2024, which sets a new gold standard for research in the UK and will ensure cohesion in requirements made of researchers going forwards.

Robyn Norton, Founding Director of The George Institute, Professor of Global Health at Imperial College London and co-principal investigator on the MESSAGE project, said, “We are delighted to see so many members of the UK research sector express their commitment to improving scientific rigour and equity in biomedical, health and care research. Today marks a huge advance for the UK research community, which will help provide the most effective evidence to improve outcomes for all patients."

What else are we doing in this area?

At the Medical Research Foundation, we are making changes to address this inequality. We are members of EDIS – the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Science and Health coalition – to learn and develop best practice in the area.

Since early 2022, we have asked all grant applicants to tell us how the sex/gender dimension of their research has been accounted for in their experimental design - and if not, why not.

We have also guided our peer reviewers and Expert Review Panel members to specifically address this issue in the applications they assess.

Read more about what we are doing here

Find out more about the MESSAGE project.