Published: 26 April 2024

Dr Catriona Manville, AMRC Director of Research Policy, and Alice Witt, Research & Policy Fellow at The George Institute for Global Health, discuss the rationale behind the MESSAGE (Medical Science Sex and Gender Equity) project and how charities can get involved.

What does the MESSAGE Project do?

Alice: The MESSAGE project aims to co-design, with the sector, a policy framework for research funders to ensure that researchers account for sex and gender in their funding applications, so from the very first stages of study design. Over the last year, the project brought together research funders, regulators, researchers, patients, and publishers at Policy Labs to discuss what UK sex and gender policies should contain and how to effectively implement them. These labs have informed the development of a policy framework which will shortly be published on the MESSAGE website.

Why is sex and gender an issue in health research?

Catriona: Sex and gender play a fundamental role in determining a person’s experience of health and illness, including the diseases they develop, the symptoms they experience, the effectiveness of treatment, and their overall outcomes.  They must be considered in research to ensure its findings are applicable to the broadest audience.

Alice: Historically, research has typically relied on the “male default”: it has been conducted on male cells, male animals and male people with the findings generalised to all members of the population. Data and analyses are rarely disaggregated by sex- and/or gender. Not accounting for the sex and gender dimensions leads to a data gap, and consequently a weaker evidence base, poorer care, and worse health outcomes for all people.

What has been done to address this so far?

Alice: Worldwide, several funders – notably the US’ National Institutes of Health (1993), the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (2010), and Horizon Europe (2016) – have adopted policies to improve the integration of sex and gender dimensions in research design. By contrast, the MESSAGE team found that no UK funders had a sex and gender policy in place in 2021. 

In July 2023, the Medical Research Council did publish one, titled Embedding diversity in research design, but there remains no unified, sector-wide guidance for researchers on the integration of sex and gender dimensions. The UK research community has a unique opportunity to step up together and roll out sex and gender policies.

Catriona: This isn’t something that can be solved in isolation or by 1 organisation. The involvement of all actors, including charities of all sizes and research spends is crucial. This project starts with funders, but it also requires commitment from regulators and publishers to ensure we’re using the opportunities available to us to make consideration and reporting of sex and gender in research the norm. 

I started talking with the team at the George Institute about this in 2021, so it’s really exciting to see the project in action and be part of their steering group.

How does this affect charities who fund research?

Alice: Research that can better account for sex and gender will be of higher quality and greater relevance. We hope medical research charities will adopt policies based on the framework and lead the way for the UK to be a role model in excellent sex and gender science. Our co-design approach, involving charities of different sizes, will ensure the resources will be useful and applicable to a large range of organisations.

Catriona: Each funder is at a different stage on this journey and a one size approach won’t fit all. Some organisations won’t be able to implement the full policy at present and so it’s important there is something for everyone, no matter where they are starting from.

The MESSAGE team are creating supporting materials to accompany the framework online. This will include comprehensive training for researchers and guidance for funders, and a scorecard to highlight the key areas funders can work on to encourage their research community, so that we’re all moving on this journey together.

We hope the rollout of sex and gender policies will lead to a paradigm shift in how research is conducted in the UK, and will improve the accuracy, reproducibility and inclusivity of the research and its findings to benefit as many people as possible.

How can charities get involved?

Catriona: AMRC and many of our members are currently involved in the MESSAGE project, co-designing the framework to ensure it is of world class standard but also practical to implement. Several charities have made public statements in support of the project. Other organisations are encouraged to add their voice to this group over time. 

Charities currently involved in the MESSAGE project

Alice: We welcome all charitable funders to be a part of the project and begin their journey to adopting a sex and gender policy. Charities may find it useful to familiarise themselves with the MESSAGE project website, which will host the co-designed policy framework and implementation tools for funders later this year. 

If you’re interested in discussing how you can use the framework, please do contact me: [email protected]. No matter the size of your organisation or where you are in the journey towards implementation, we want to hear from you.

AMRC is hosting a webinar and Q&A session with Alice Witt and project lead Dr Kate Womersley via Zoom on 13 June 2024 from 2pm-3.30pm. It’s an opportunity for our members to learn more about the MESSAGE project and discuss with the team how the new policy framework can be adopted and implemented by charities and any support you may require. If you would like to attend, please register for the event in advance.