Liberals enact new measures pushing for greater diversity in science

Veronica Silva
November 8, 2017

Caps and possible cuts in funding to be enforced

The Liberal government is pushing for more diversity and inclusion in science and engineering, even to the point of threatening to cancel some funding to universities that don’t support the agenda. At the recent Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) held in Ottawa, Science minister Kirsty Duncan announced a number of initiatives to encourage equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Among them is the cap to Tier 1 Chairs under the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) program and a reminder to universities to submit their EDI work plan by December 15 or risk facing cuts to their CRC funding.

By capping the renewals, Duncan says she is following one of the recommendations of the report on Fundamental Science Review (Recommendation 7.2) which was released last spring.

“This cap will ensure that more mid-career and early-career researchers will have the opportunity to hold one of these prestigious positions,” says Duncan. “The cap will also ensure greater diversity in chair positions; that means more women, Indigenous peoples, visible minorities, and those with disabilities in the sciences, and I mean all sciences right across the disciplines so that everyone will have a shot at one of these chairs.”

The CRC is a $265-million-a-year program established in 2000 as an initiative of the granting councils to attract and retain some of the top minds in academia through 2,000 research chairs. Under the new cap made effective this month, institutions can only nominate Tier 1 Chairs for renewal once, to a maximum of two seven-year terms. On rare occasions, a chairholder can be nominated for a third term, but only after exhibiting exceptional circumstances.

Aside from the cap, there is a new allocation model for the chairs. In the coming years, 1,880 chairs will be awarded by disciplines, with 39% of the total (733) for natural sciences and engineering, another 39% (733) for health and the remaining 22% (414) for social sciences and humanities. The balance of 120 chairs are special allocations for institutions receiving lesser funding - the threshold of which is $100,000 - from any of the three federal granting agencies, namely, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

Duncan also reminded universities to submit their Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan by deadline on December 15.

NSERC report

Duncan’s announcements come on the heels of the release of a recent report that shows that there’s much work to be done to have more women pursue STEM programs and careers.

The 2017 NSERC report on Women in Science and Engineering in Canada shows that while the number of women undertaking natural sciences and engineering (NSE) degree programs has increased over the years, particularly in the 1990s (as a percentage of the population of enrolees or labour force), the trends are still flat.

“If you just look at the numbers, there is some good news. Women for the most part are increasing in numbers in most natural sciences and engineering fields within the university and afterwards when they start their careers and start working in NSE-related occupations. But most of the time, the benchmark for success is what percentage of enrolment, faculty or labour force are represented by women, and that’s where progress is still positive but fairly slow,” says Barney Laciak, report author and manager of NSERC corporate planning and reporting. “That’s why the conclusion reached in the report is we still need to do more – more in terms of policy and promotion.”

The 2017 report shows that as a percentage of enrolment, the number of women enrolled in NSE programs at the bachelor’s level has increased by 5% from 32.1% in 1992 to 37.5% in 1999. But from 2007 to 2014, growth is flat, from 38.6% to 38%. At the PhD level, the percentage increase is from 20.9% in 1992 to 29.5% in 1999. But from 2007 to 2014 it slowed considerably from 30.9% to 31.8%.

The NSERC report also notes that from 2005 to 2015, the percentage of women holding NSE-related occupations has increased from 20.9% to 23.2%.

The government has made this low participation of women an economic issue because Canada needs the skills and expertise from all segments of the population to meet growing demand for science, technology and innovation skills. There is also a special focus to encourage STEM interest among youth, who will be the ones replacing an aging population.


NSERC says it has funded several programs to help promote STEM participation among girls, women and Indigenous groups.

These include:

  • PromoScience, which is targeted at youth for an annual budget of $9 million;
  • Collaborative Research and Training Experience Program (CREATE), targeted at students and postdoctoral fellows with funding for up to $1.65M over six years; and,
  • chairs for women in science and engineering, which is a program to have a chair in each region in the country.

Alfred LeBlanc, NSERC’s VP communications, corporate and international affairs, says NSERC is also addressing inclusion by way of policy, training and understanding how to mitigate biases and barriers to women in science and engineering.

For example, NSERC is currently doing a road show to share its framework and statement on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. Serge Villemure, director, scholarships, fellowships & chairs for Women in Science and Engineering, says the EDI framework and statement have been peer reviewed by university partners who are experts in the field.

NSERC says that some interventions are beyond its jurisdiction. For example, the economic slowdown of 2008 prompted some baby boomers to remain in their jobs in science and engineering, making it difficult for younger women to obtain full-time positions.

Dr Imogen Coe, founding dean of Ryerson Univ’s faculty of science and an advocate for EDI in STEM, says the issue of getting more women to participate in science and engineering is cultural.

“It’s a cultural and contextual issue, and it’s a responsibility of all of society to stop gender stereotyping and make sure that we identify and remove the barriers that prevent full accessibility to STEM pathways for girls and boys of underrepresented groups,” said Coe.

Challenging perceptions and stereotypes was also one of the findings of a roundtable meeting sponsored by Ryerson and the CSPC last May. Participants noted that organizations need to change their attitudes and perceptions around these stereotypes.

Coe, who co-chaired the meeting, says she also supports policies where institutions face consequences for failing to enact change. “Holding institutions accountable and setting consequences for failure to act to change is the way to make change,” she says, particularly referring to the possibility of institutions getting defunded if they don’t submit their action plans for EDI by December. “If you have consequences and responsibility, you can create meaningful change to identify and eliminate barriers to accessibility,” she adds.


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