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Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan pictured during an interview November 26, 2015 in Ottawa. The steering committee for the Canada Research Chairs program reports directly to Duncan.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

The steering committee of the prestigious Canada Research Chairs program says it is a high priority to fix equity practices that have seen women and diverse candidates underrepresented among recipients.

The program, which gives lucrative awards to almost 2,000 researchers nominated by their institutions across Canada, has generally failed to meet equity targets since they were established in 2008. On average, large and medium universities are three and five percentage points short, respectively, of meeting the goal of 31 per cent women in the program. Schools have gotten better in recent years at meeting the targets of 15 per cent visible minorities and 1 per cent aboriginal, though they are far behind in having 4 per cent representation of those with disabilities.

An independent review of the Canada Research Chairs program released Thursday recommended that universities be held to greater account for not meeting these targets. In its official response to the report, the CRC steering committee agreed and said it would work "to develop a strategy to promote adherence to equity targets by universities."

The steering committee includes the heads of the three research agencies – the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Natural Sciences and Engineer Research Council and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research – as well as senior bureaucrats at Health Canada and the economic development department. The committee reports directly to Science Minister Kirsty Duncan.

Ms. Duncan has said she takes the issue seriously, and recently made changes to a more elite version of the program – the Canada Excellence Research Chairs – to put pressure on universities to promote more diverse researchers.

"Frankly, our country cannot reach its full potential if more than half of its people do not feel welcomed into the lab where their ideas, their talent and their ambition is needed," she said in a statement last week.

Universities nominate candidates for the awards, and those nominees are approved by the federal body more than 90 per cent of the time.

David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said the government needs to start offering incentives or restricting the number of research chairs it hands out if it expects universities to improve their diversity.

"Unless there's a punishment behind it, there's no motivation to take [equity] seriously," he said.

Amir Attaran, a University of Ottawa law professor who is pursuing a human-rights complaint about the program, said there is a lack of concrete action in the response. "If this were food, it is junk food – not filling, not nutritious and empty calories," he said.

Universities Canada, an association that represents 97 postsecondary institutions, says its members welcome the invitation from the program to intensify their efforts. "We also understand that current challenges are not across the board; in fact, some institutions have had good success in achieving diversity in CRC appointments," spokeswoman Helen Murphy said.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission recently asked the Federal Court to enforce a 2006 settlement that established the equity hiring targets in the first place. The levels are based on the representation of the four groups in the pool of eligible researchers, which is itself lower than the representation of those groups in the wider population.

The review, conducted for the CRC program's 15th year, was written by management consultants at Goss Gilroy Inc.

The steering committee also agreed with recommendations to increase the value of the awards currently set at $100,000 and $200,000 a year for the program's two tiers, to consider removing the ability of higher-tier chairs to be renewed indefinitely, and to encourage universities to offer enriched packages to recipients.