Sex in Context: Rethinking Sex as a Biological Variable from Research to Policy

Sarah Richardson, Harvard University
Madeleine Pape
, University of Lausanne 

Since 2016, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has mandated that basic and preclinical researchers incorporate “sex” into their research design and analyses. Known as Sex as a Biological Variable (SABV), this policy has prompted considerable debate within scientific and feminist communities about the extent to which it can indeed advance scientific discovery and women's health. This is not least because the mandate appears to encourage a narrow understanding of sex as a straightforward female/male binary, as opposed to a form of difference that always varies in complex and context-specific ways––including across women and men and even laboratory animals. As such, critics caution that the SABV approach may in fact hamper scientific understanding of the complex factors that shape the health of Americans, while also hurting the broader pursuit of gender equity, since the definition of sex embedded in the policy lends itself to essentialist notions of female/male difference.

Informed by such critiques, this exploratory seminar will engage proposals for alternative, contextual approaches to the study of sex-related biological variables in US biomedical research. Bringing together leading interdisciplinary scholars from feminist science studies, biology of sex and gender, and women’s health research and policy, the goals of this convening will be threefold: to critically reflect on the strengths, limitations, and impacts of the SABV policy; to develop an alternative framework for integrating “sex” as a complex, dynamic, and context-specific variable into biomedical research; and, to identify opportunities for its application within the context of US biomedical research and policy.