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Politics Canada Research Chairs program taking new measures to close equity gaps among prestigious academic positions

The Canada Research Chairs program is committing to new measures to close the long-running equity gaps among the prestigious academic positions, including for the first time a focus on professors who are LGBTQ.

The CRC program awards funding for more than 2,000 top researchers at a time. A 2006 legal settlement between the federal government and eight female researchers required the program to set targets for how many of the award recipients were female, Indigenous, visible minorities or had a disability.

In the years since, universities have rarely met or exceeded the equity targets that sought to make sure that the diversity of those who received the awards reflected the diversity of those who were eligible to receive them.

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On Wednesday, the three main federal granting councils, the Canadian Association of University Teachers and the Canadian Human Rights Commission announced an addendum to the 2006 settlement that would set more ambitious targets for representation in the program.

The three granting councils are the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Dr. Malinda Smith in her office at the University of Alberta in Edmonton on Aug. 17, 2017.

Amber Bracken/Amber Bracken

Malinda Smith, a political science professor at the University of Alberta who is on the program’s equity advisory committee, said she’s cautiously optimistic that the new settlement will increase the urgency in the research community to promote more diverse scholars.

“If it ensures more credible commitment, more credible outcomes, that’s a good thing,” Dr. Smith said.

A Canada Research Chair comes in two tiers: Tier 1 chairs are given $200,000 annually for seven years, while Tier 2 chairs are given $100,000 annually for five years. A chair can be renominated for a second term. Universities are given a number of research chairs to fill based on a calculation that includes how much other federal funding the institutions receive.

The new targets are to be based on those groups’ representation in the general Canadian population, as opposed to their numbers in the hiring pool of academics. That means that in 10 years, 50.9 per cent of research chairs are to be given to women; 22 per cent to visible minorities; 7.5 per cent to people with disabilities; and 4.9 per cent to Indigenous scholars.

The federal program also committed for the first time to monitoring the level of LGBTQ representation among both those eligible to get the awards and those who successfully receive them. The program said it would encourage universities to implement initiatives to boost the number of LGBTQ academics, but it is not yet setting targets for that group.

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The current representation among Canada Research Chairs, according to May, 2019, data, is that 33.5 per cent were women; 15.9 per cent are visible minorities; 1.6 per cent were people with disabilities; and 2.1 per cent were Indigenous people.

Those equity numbers are actually historic highs for the program. Universities began nominating more diverse recipients for the program starting in 2016, after a push by some academics to see more results after a decade of slow progress and after a series of stories in The Globe and Mail.

Federal Science Minister Kirsty Duncan told university leaders in May, 2017, that the program could start withholding funds in the future if they did not improve their equity numbers. Other reforms of the program followed, including new term limits and a requirement that universities publish equity action plans.

Amir Attaran, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who held a research chair for 10 years, said he is concerned that the language in the settlement does not bind the program to withhold funds from universities who don’t meet their equity targets, as it says only that they “may” do so.

“Since 2006, meeting targets has been optional and the government has failed. And in 2019 they remain optional. This is a blueprint for failure,” he said.

Dr. Attaran is currently pursuing a separate complaint before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal about the equity gaps in the program.

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The eight women who drove the settlement efforts were: Marjorie Griffin Cohen, Louise Forsyth, Glenis Joyce, Audrey Kobayashi, Shree Mulay, Susan Prentice, and the late Wendy Robbins and Michèle Ollivier.

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