New funding approaches could address gender disparities, peer review bias: Council of Canadian Academies

Mark Lowey
May 12, 2021

Creative funding approaches could help Canada’s research funding agencies address issues such as gender disparities, peer review bias and inequitable funding for researchers and institutions, says the chair of a new expert panel report by the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA).

Experimenting with new funding models and other novel approaches entails risk, “but that’s not a reason not to experiment,” panel chair Dr. Shirley M. Tilghman, told Research Money.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) asked the CCA for an evidence-based, independent assessment of successful international practices for funding natural sciences and engineering research and how these could be applied in Canada.

The CCA released its report, “Powering Discovery,” by an eight-member expert panel on May 4.

Equity, diversity and inclusion efforts  

Promising practices to support equity, diversity and inclusion in the research community include explicit diversity targets, dedicated funding programs for disadvantaged applicants, equality charters (which can be linked to institutions’ funding eligibility) and practices to reduce bias in peer review, the report noted.

For example, several major research funding agencies in the UK are requiring academic research institutions applying for funding to participate in the Athena SWAN Charter program, said Tilghman, a Canadian-born molecular biologist and professor at Princeton University.

The original Athena SWAN Charter was established in 2005 by the higher-education group Advance HE in the UK. It has been piloted in Canada in 2019 with a program called "Dimensions," and it has also been adopted in Ireland and Australia and piloted in the U.S.

In the UK program, universities are asked to adopt a charter of gender equality principles, which then provides access to benefits such as awards for institutions based on their success in advancing women through the academic ranks in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The Dimensions pilot program in Canada addresses obstacles faced by, but not limited to, women, Indigenous Peoples, persons with disabilities, members of visible minorities/racialized groups and members of LGBTQ2+ communities.

The program is supported by NSERC, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Seventeen Canadian post-secondary institutions are participating in the pilot.

Another approach being used by funders internationally is to make the organizers of such events accountable for ensuring gender and other diversity in the speakers.

Ensuring fairness in review processes

Globally, as more and more researchers compete for less funding, some people began to believe that the application review processes weren’t fair, Tilghman said.

In response, several funding agencies are now doing an initial vetting of applications to pare them down to a small group. Instead of spending a lot of time and effort determining the often-subtle differences between applications of similar quality, a lottery is then used to decide which proposals get funded — making the process more efficient while eliminating potential bias.

“Fairness really is an important issue here,” Tilghman said. “There is something to be said for using a system in which you may not win, but you can hardly argue that it wasn’t fair.”

Along with gender and ethnic biases that may creep into peer reviews of funding applications, another bias is against small research institutions.

“A very good proposal coming in from a very small Canadian university might not fare as well as an identical proposal that’s coming from a very famous department within a very well-known university,” Tilghman said.

Some agencies are trying “blind” peer reviews of research proposals, where the name of the researcher and the institution isn’t disclosed to peer reviewers. Another novel approach is “distributed review,” where the pool of applicants serves as reviewers.

Better allocation of research funding

Another issue funders struggle with is ensuring that the most promising researchers receive sufficient funding while also giving all researchers a chance to demonstrate what they could do if they had more funding.

“The only advice I would give to any funding agency is to have both of those priorities in their minds at all times. They’re both important,” Tilghman said.

Some agencies are experimenting with longer-duration grants (sometimes greater than five years) along with expanded support for collaboration to encourage interdisciplinary and high-risk research, according to the expert panel’s report.

CIFAR (previously known as the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research) has been effective in supporting interdisciplinary research and networking across a range of research themes, the panel said. NSERC has adjusted the structure of its peer-review process to better accommodate “bottom-up” proposals combining multiple disciplines.

Deciding how best to allocate a limited amount of funding is especially difficult in Canada, said Tilghman. Challenges include the under-investment in R&D by the private sector and the scarcity of large philanthropic organizations that support research — particularly in biomedical science — compared with the U.S. and other countries.

Learning from COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic drove an unprecedented mobilization and accelerating of research activity in many domains, the CCA expert panel found.

“Funding agencies were able to get money out the door to support research in ways that they never would have been able to do in the past,” Tilghman said.

COVID also had a significant impact on the open-science initiative. Researchers increasingly posted their results on pre-print servers rather than wait for acceptance and publication in peer-reviewed journals.

“I think now that that genie is out of the bottle, it’s never going to go back in,” Tilghman said.

While such practices shouldn’t become the norm, there will be times in the future when funding agencies will be asked to be much more responsive and faster in meeting research needs, she added. “COVID showed agencies the need for building into their processes the capacity at least to respond rapidly," she said.

At the same time, the pandemic highlighted the challenge funders face in attempting to balance immediate needs with preserving support for fundamental, curiosity-driven research. Funders should be wary of allowing priority-driven research to become overly dominant, “given that today’s investigator-led research may be vital in addressing tomorrow’s priorities,” the expert panel said.

Report will inform development of NSERC's long-term strategy

NSERC commissioned the CCA report as part of the funding agency’s planning process for its new long-term strategic plan, NSERC 2030.

The report stressed that evidence for how well some of the new funding models work is still very limited, and adapting practices from abroad requires carefully tailoring them to Canada’s diverse funding environment.

“An important takeaway for NSERC from our report is to try some experiments, but rigorously evaluate them,” Tilghman said.

Topics covered in the report—such as supporting researchers across their careers, enhancing equity, diversity, and inclusion in the research community and supporting interdisciplinary and high-risk research—are current priorities for NSERC and its stakeholders, said Dr. Alejandro Adem, NSERC’s president and a University of British Columbia mathematics professor.

“This report will inform the development of our next strategic plan, NSERC 2030. We look forward to engaging with the research community in the weeks and months to come as we work towards renewing and modernizing NSERC,” Adem said in an email to Research Money.


Other News

Events For Leaders in
Science, Tech, Innovation, and Policy

Discuss and learn from those in the know at our virtual and in-person events.

See Upcoming Events

You have 1 free article remaining.
Don't miss out - start your free trial today.

Start your FREE trial    Already a member? Log in


By using this website, you agree to our use of cookies. We use cookies to provide you with a great experience and to help our website run effectively in accordance with our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.