As we welcome the 44th Parliament amidst a growing fourth wave of COVID-19, it is crucial that we reassess how the Government of Canada can adequately facilitate our post-pandemic economic recovery by building capacity in science and technology.
The pandemic has underscored the necessity of a strong research environment to safeguard our nation’s well-being and the integrity of our economy. Investments in science, research, and innovation cultivate a highly skilled workforce that is equipped to face many challenges. Budget 2021 shows modest injections into different research sectors but suffers from the absence of a long-term national strategy to foster equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) across Canadian research institutions.
Diversity in research is key for innovation because it allows for new perspectives and ideas to flourish. It cultivates international research collaborations and allows for local research to be more applicable to global communities. However, nurturing a diversified research workforce requires sustainable support systems to ensure equitable and inclusive opportunities.
For Canada to achieve an EDI-centered research environment, systemic barriers, such as the gender pay gap, limited funding opportunities for international students, and critical biases (both unconscious and implicit) towards historically under-represented groups need to be addressed.
In 2017, the Fundamental Science Review (FSR) Report outlined recommendations that would form the basis for the 2018’s historical “science” budget, which emphasized the need for EDI in research. The report urged the Tri-council federal funding agencies to standardize EDI policies across agencies, leading to the creation of the Dimensions: equity, diversity and inclusion Canada pilot program. The program serves as a mandate for hard equity quotas for the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) Program, and a comprehensive strategic plan to promote and provide long-term support for Indigenous research. Further commitments were detailed in the 2018 budget which included a $6 million allocation to collect improved data on researchers, and $15 million to implement programs supporting EDI in institutions, including a Tri-Council EDI Action Plan, and the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy to foster a more inclusive innovation sector for women.
In Budget 2021, the federal government committed $12 million to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to fund research identifying and understanding systemic barriers faced by underrepresented groups, and expanded the disability support available to students through the Federal Student Loans Programs. The Liberal Party of Canada has brought forward their EDI-related commitments to research which detailed funding support to improving gender and racial equity through the CRC program, and support for graduate students and the granting agencies.
The federal government must push for greater EDI reforms at research institutions by expanding upon existing grants, programs, and practices. A concerted federal effort across all Canadian academic research institutions is certainly feasible due to the Tri-Council’s jurisdiction in funding post-secondary research and training.
The Tri-Council is currently in the second pilot year for their Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Institutional Capacity-Building Grant, which allows post-secondary institutions to apply for grants to support existing EDI action plans. This pilot is limited to small institutions and colleges, but expansion of the program to all post-secondary institutions through an increased budget can serve as a supplement to the Tri-Council’s Dimensions program, which currently has no funding attached. The Dimensions program is a great opportunity for institutions to receive formal recognition of their diversity initiatives but adding grant support to build institutional EDI capacity will incentivize participation and allow for implementation of action plans that are developed through the program. A 2019 survey by Universities Canada found that a common challenge faced by institutions in implementing EDI action plans was a lack of continued funding to support full-time staff working on these initiatives. Therefore, increasing federal grants for institutional EDI initiatives would allow individuals working in this space to be compensated and offset the “equity tax”. This type of governmental support should come with stipulations on ensuring the institutional EDI committees themselves are diverse and representative of the researchers they are advocating for.
Along with funding initiatives, the federal government should incorporate a system for accountability in institutional EDI targets. Institutional support for the CRC programs are already subject to EDI quotas and are further tied to future funding. Similar methods of accountability can be used to ensure the implementation of EDI measures by linking them to institutional federal grant quotas.
Systemic change is also required from the bottom up – in the form of increased EDI initiatives to support graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. The Tri-Council can address EDI gaps in graduate funding to improve entry and retention of historically underrepresented trainees. Additionally, support for societal EDI-centric outreach initiatives, such as the NovaScience program introduced in Quebec’s Research and Innovation Strategy, is an excellent way for the federal government to support diversity within the next generation of researchers.
Fostering an equitable, inclusive and diverse research ecosystem requires contributions from many stakeholders. The federal government cannot directly alter institutional policies; however, government funding and support of EDI initiatives in research and academia can push institutions into taking more targeted action.