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Striving for fair representation

By Matthew Pariselli  •  July 4, 2019


Women, Indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities are groups for which the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) Program is pointedly advocating. It was in 2017 that the CRC Program, which funds the salaries of select Canadian researchers with $265 million annually, launched an initiative to boost the presence of these four federally designated groups among the country’s CRCs.

The push was stipulated in the organization’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Action Plan, and it became mandatory for Canada’s academic institutes to reflect the program’s mandate in the allocation of CRCs. If an institute fails to meet standards by December 2019, then it will lose funding.

At Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI), adhering to the CRC Program’s mission is well underway, owing to Kevin Hamilton and Claudia Gordijo, director and projects officer, respectively, in the office of strategic research programs. They developed the institute’s EDI action plan. This entailed establishing transparent recruitment and selection processes of SRI’s chairs to contribute to targets set by the University of Toronto, with which SRI is affiliated. All hospitals affiliated with U of T submit applications for CRCs through the university.

“I welcome the renewed focus of the Canada Research Chairs Program on ensuring we achieve equity and diversity in science, as research excellence depends on it,” says Dr. Michael Julius, vice-president of research at Sunnybrook and SRI. “Our EDI action plan underscores our commitment to achieving this aim.”

There are two types of chairs: Tier I and Tier II. Tier I chairs are held for seven years, and are for researchers regarded as world leaders in their fields. These can be renewed once. Tier II chairs, also renewable once, are for emerging researchers who have the potential to lead in their fields. These are held for five years. Prior to the CRC Program’s EDI Action Plan, there was no cap on how many times a position could be renewed, Gordijo says. By allowing only one renewal, the aim is to provide members of the designated groups more opportunities.

Combining Tier I and II chairs, SRI will have 10 positions, seven of which will be newly filled in the next two years. To attract younger scientists, where representation of the four designated groups is highest, Hamilton says, one of the Tier I positions has been converted into two Tier II chairs.

“For many in the designated groups, there are barriers—some formal, others indirect, and even some implicit biases—that have affected their educational and career opportunities, development and progression, and left them disadvantaged relative to others,” Hamilton says. He notes these drawbacks could manifest in fewer publications or grants, as ample research shows. “EDI policies aim to make allowances for these disadvantages, and to recognize talent, capabilities and potential, rather than only the traditional performance metrics,” he says.

He also argues that EDI policies make the most of the talent that is being overlooked: “I’ve heard it said that such policies undermine excellence, but I disagree. I think they in fact show that the pool of excellence is deeper than we’ve credited it being.”

Thanks to SRI’s EDI action plan, selecting scientists to become chairs is now similar to a regular job application process, Gordijo says. A post advertising the opportunity goes live; interested scientists submit a curriculum vitae and cover letter; and a committee of at least five members, including a chair and an equity officer, evaluates the applications. “This committee is very important,” Gordijo adds. “It needs to have [diverse] representation, because normally people tend to recruit people that look like them. [And] the process must be completely transparent.”

Clarity in process is a point Hamilton echoes. “I think the longer-lasting impact will come from the emphasis on transparency,” he says. “We have targets, but we and most other institutions have also had to rethink how we select candidates, in particular focusing on ensuring that the process is transparent—that everyone knows what is expected of everyone involved.”

With eyes trained on the road ahead, Gordijo adds, “On top of the CRCs, can we [apply] this to the other programs we have here at Sunnybrook? We know there’s a need to do more.” On the same note, Hamilton turns to general recruitment, application selection processes and reviews as areas that could benefit from EDI policies. He says, “If it is right for CRCs, why would we not apply it wherever else it would be relevant?”