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Gender gap spurs new rules for top-tier research chairs

Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan is pictured during an interview on Nov. 26, 2015, in Ottawa.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

The federal government is continuing with an oft-criticized program of funding a select tier of high-priced academic chairs designed to lure research superstars to Canada, but with new rules intended to address the enormous gender gap among existing chair-holders.

On Wednesday, Science Minister Kirsty Duncan announced a competition for 11 new Canada Excellence Research Chairs worth $10-million each over seven years.

Any eligible Canadian university that is successful at winning one of the high-profile chairs will have the opportunity to recruit a leading researcher from within Canada or abroad.

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"It's about attracting the best talent from around the world," Ms. Duncan said, adding that the ultimate aim of the program is to foster research hubs that develop around the chair-holders and create opportunities for training and partnerships.

Introduced by the previous Conservative government in 2008, the CERC program saw its first chairs awarded in the spring of 2010. Since then, the program has led to the hiring of more than two dozen top researchers across a diverse range of specialties, including cognitive neuroscience, Arctic geology and the genetics of pain.

Yet, of the 28 current chair-holders, only one is a woman.

"I think in 2016 that number is simply unacceptable," Ms. Duncan said.

In the new round, each competing institution will have to submit a detailed equity and diversity plan as part of the application process that encompasses the hiring of researchers and students around the successful chair. On average, each chair results in the creation of a 44-person research team, Ms. Duncan said, emphasizing that the requirement should not compromise the ability of universities to attract the best researchers possible to the positions.

Gender imbalance has also been a persistent problem for the less lucrative but far more numerous Canada Research Chairs. An evaluation of that program ordered by Ms. Duncan last spring is to be included in a comprehensive review of Canada's research funding process due around the end of this year.

David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, welcomed the effort to improve equity in the CERC program, but he added that other concerns remain, including the criticism that it concentrates too many resources on a few individuals who are chosen to pursue a government-determined research agenda at a time when younger researchers across all disciplines are struggling for support.

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"What we're less happy with is that the government seems to be continuing the tradition the Conservatives started, which is using these programs to identify what it determines are strategic research priorities. We think those decisions are best made by the research community and by scientists themselves," he said.

In the current round, three of the 11 new chairs are entirely open to any research specialty. At least three of the others will be directed to specific priorities, including two for clean technology and one for business innovation. Others will cover a broad range of research areas in health and life sciences, natural resources, information and communications technologies, and advanced manufacturing.

Ms. Duncan said the government chose to limit the new competition to 11 chairs until it hears from the comprehensive review panel. A key issue, she noted, is not simply attracting researchers to the program but retaining them after the seven years of funding expires.

Some have recommended that that the program should spread its resources over a longer time span in order to better take into account the personal and professional upheaval and lengthy interruption in research output that occurs when a highly productive mid-career scientist shuts down a lab in order to re-establish a new home base in Canada.

Last April, Jennifer Hoffman, a Canada Excellence Research Chair in Quantum Materials at the University of British Columbia, quit after only one year in the program. She returned to a position at Harvard University, telling colleagues that the transition had been too difficult for her family.

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