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Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan says she’s spoken to university presidents about the importance of nominating chairs that reflect academia’s diversity.FRED CHARTRAND/The Canadian Press

One of the government's most prestigious research programs is set to unveil one of its largest cohorts of women ever.

The Liberal government will announce funding of $173-million for a group of 203 new and renewed Canada Research Chairs at the University of Toronto on Friday.

The federal program, which hands out lucrative awards to more than 1,600 researchers in a wide variety of fields across the country, said last month it was a high priority to close the equity gaps that see women, visible minorities and other diverse groups underrepresented in the award's ranks. The program is one of the federal government's most prominent tools to attract and retain top academic talent in Canada.

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The new cohort announced Friday is 38-per-cent women, up significantly from the 27-per-cent women included in the last round. It is tied for the largest proportion of female research chairs that the government has announced at one time.

The overall equity target for women across the program is 31 per cent, based on the representation of female academics in the nation's universities. Large- and medium-sized institutions were three and five percentage points short, respectively, while small schools usually exceeded the target.

Academics are nominated by their universities for the Canada Research Chairs, and the federal program approves the nominations nine times out of 10.

Science Minister Kirsty Duncan, who was an environmental researcher before entering politics, says she's spoken to university presidents about the importance of nominating chairs that reflect academia's diversity.

Ms. Duncan pointed to other changes she's made in the past year, including the introduction of diversity requirements into the Canada Excellence Research Chairs, a more elite version of the program. Currently, 26 of the 27 CERC holders are men.

"I think it's important for people to understand it's not just the one researcher. The average size of teams [they lead] is 34 or 35," she said.

Barbara Fallon, an associate professor at the University of Toronto, won her first research chair for her work investigating child abuse and neglect across Canada. Her research has helped agencies better understand how to save children from unsafe homes.

Prof. Fallon said one of her most important findings has been that protecting children is often about giving the entire family the support they need.

"The caregivers might be struggling with their mental health or addiction, or they live in poverty," she said. "There are few children who come to the attention of a child-welfare authority where they're actually physically harmed."

She said her research has also shown that mothers suffering from domestic violence often hide from authorities because they worry their children will be taken away. But, she says, her data have shown that authorities are unlikely to take children from their mothers in those situations.

Prof. Fallon said she'll use the funding to hire and train the "next generation" of child-welfare investigators. She says she wants to instill in them how important it is in research not to get too focused on just the numbers, and to keep in mind the real people that those statistics represent.