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Kirsty Duncan, the federal Minister of Science, is photographed during a lab tour at the University of Toronto on June 28, 2017.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The federal government is making changes to the Canada Research Chairs Program, including term limits, in a bid to increase the diversity of the researchers receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars of federal funding.

The research chairs program is one of the government's most prestigious tools for attracting and retaining top academic talent in Canada. The program is divided into two levels: Tier 2 chairs, who receive $100,000 annually on five-year terms that can be renewed once; and Tier 1 chairs, who receive $200,000 annually for seven-year terms that can be renewed indefinitely.

On Thursday, the Liberal government said it would limit Tier 1 chairs to two terms to generate churn in the program and allow universities to recruit academics who may come from more diverse personal backgrounds. The change is in effect as of this week.

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"My goal in this is I want to get more researchers into the system mid-career – some early career – and I want to improve equity and diversity," Science Minister Kirsty Duncan said. "But I really want to give our tremendous researchers a shot at having one of these prestigious chairs."

Many universities have already begun to voluntarily limit Tier 1 chairs as the schools struggle to meet the program's equity targets.

"The announcement was anticipated by Canada's universities and many have already been laying the groundwork on campus to prepare for the changes," said Universities Canada spokesperson Brenna Baggs.

After a 2006 legal settlement, the program had to set hiring targets for four groups – women, visible minorities, Indigenous people and people with a disability – to ensure that eligible academics from those groups were well represented among the ranks of the research chairs.

In the decade since, universities have mostly struggled to meet their targets. Those figures have improved more recently. For instance, 30 per cent of Canada Research Chairs now go to women, against a goal of 31 per cent.

However, most of the balance has come from among the less lucrative Tier 2 positions; among the Tier 1 appointments, only 17 per cent were women in 2015.

Universities are also being given more flexibility in what they do with the chairs that are given to them. For the next two years, universities will be able to adjust their funding – say, by using the money from one Tier 1 chair to instead fund two Tier 2 chairs – in order to meet their targets, or move chairs between different disciplines.

Universities have until Dec. 15 to write up diversity action plans, and another 18 to 24 months to meet their targets or, the government threatens, they will lose their research-chair funding.

Michael Byers, a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, was recruited from North Carolina's Duke University in 2004. He would be up for renewal next year. He says the new term limits could diminish the program's attractiveness for academics.

"If our international colleagues find out that the top Canadian researchers are being subject to two-term limits that were not originally there, that does raise questions as to how future prospective recruits might regard any future offer from Canada," Prof. Byers said.

Dr. Duncan said a new program unveiled earlier this year, the Canada 150 Research Chairs, has attracted considerable interest from outside the country, and preliminary data show more than half of applicants are women.

The government also announced this week the creation of the Canada Research Co-ordinating Committee to better integrate how research funding is handed out. The committee is made up of the heads of the three federal granting councils and the deputy ministers of the science and health departments.

Currently, all five members of the committee are men. Dr. Duncan said they would work with Roseann O'Reilly Runte, president of the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, and Mona Nemer, the government's chief science adviser.