Responding to racism in Canadian science

CarolAnne Black
November 30, 2022

As the country moves towards reconciliation, de-colonisation, and equity, and federal agencies that fund academic research implement programs to increase diversity in granting success rates, ongoing questions around racism in science occupied a panel at the 2022 Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa.

Panellists from the federal government, not-for-profit sector, and academia rounded out the discussion, titled Equity and Anti-Racism in Science — An Approach for Augmenting Canadian Science and Technology, during which the largely government and academia-based audience heard perspectives on a current lack of funding, accountability, and baseline data, as well as the need for action. Among the conclusions: more than good intentions are required for measurable change.

Angelin Soosaipillai, Mitacs’ Vice President of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, began the discussion by presenting how her organization, which connects industry with talent from academia, is reducing barriers to access within its programs. Beyond STEM graduate students, Mitacs now targets students from all disciplines and post-secondary levels, as well as removing citizenship or permanent residency requirements. More specifically, said, Soosaipillai, Mitacs financial support for the needs of Indigenous participants has driven “a tremendous increase in Indigenous students participating in Indigenous innovation.”

According to the panellists, catching racialized youth early, while they are still in high school or even younger, is crucial to keeping them in the STEM pipeline. Mitacs does just that, through strategic partnerships with organisations that reach students from kindergarten to Grade 12.

Among those partnership is a collaboration with Canadian Black Scientists Network (CBSN), which hosts an annual conference that includes a science fair for youth, who are mentored by black scientists and others. Maydianne Andrade, professor in the University of Toronto’s Department of Biological Sciences, and the founder and president of CBSN, explained that the real challenge around such outreach is sustaining it with funding.

“When people say we need to wait [for consistent funding], and throw up their arms, they're talking about the lives of children being lost,” she said. “We've lost generations of children. So that's what I'm asking for: stop throwing up your hands, figure out how to fund us.”

Saadia Muzaffar, founder of TechGirls Canada, pointed out that Canada’s immigration policy seeks out highly trained people. In particular, she reported that nearly one-third of women in STEM are internationally trained immigrants who may face labour market barriers in this country. Addressing and decreasing those barriers could make a difference, for those women as well as for Canada’s STEM output. And yet, until TechGirls led a study published in 2020, no baseline data on immigrant women in STEM existed in Canada.

Harpreet Kocchar, President of the Public Health Agency of Canada, reminded the audience of the importance of considering race in health research. By way of example, he recalled how, during the pandemic, oximeters that attach to the finger to measure blood oxygen levels, were calibrated for light skin. When used on dark skin, “the readings were very different.” He noted that such mistakes are usual, but they still need to come to the attention of the scientific community.

Kocchar also discussed the work of Deputy Ministers, representing 14 Canadian science-related federal departments, who set priorities for action in three areas, one being anti-racism in science.

“Acting against racism is what we define as methodically identifying, assessing, preventing, and reducing the bias, as well as looking at the design, conduct and communication of and use of research science as well as related activities,” he concluded. “And science excellence actually demands anti-racist science.”

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