Color & Control:

Time to fix the inequity in Canadian research council grants

By Janet Mantler, Ivy Bourgeault and Nicole Power

Researchers can tell you that grant proposals take a long time to develop. Primary investigators are advised to allocate at least 120 hours to prepare an application, but it often takes much longer. Other researchers on the proposal will also work many days, and community partners write letters of support. Many universities offer significant support staff to review and vet proposals.

Imagine working for months on an outstanding proposal for an 80 per cent chance of failure (the current rejection rate for CIHR grants, for example).

That’s the reality in Canada today. We have no shortage of research talent—but we squander it in this vicious cycle of preparing grants year after year, resulting in months of foregoing research progress. It’s not only the lack of overall research funding that’s the problem—it’s also the systemic barriers and biases built into the funding process itself.

The federal government has a role to play in revamping how our federal research agencies allocate research funding.

Researchers with long-established programs of research tend to have higher success rates with the Canadian granting councils. At issue, scholars, many of whom are women, Indigenous, and people of colour, with new and innovative research or research at the boundaries are often overlooked. Early career grant disparity can impede early career research, negatively affecting their entire career, hampering the potential for groundbreaking research.

The Canadian government’s three research council agencies—CIHR, NSERC, SSHRC—fund Canadian researchers to enable them to produce high quality research. In 2019, researchers from UBC found that women had systematically received fewer grants from NSERC and, for those who did receive a grant, they received lower award amounts, particularly for those early in their career.

In addition to the quality and feasibility of a research project, grant proposals are heavily weighted by the researcher’s publication record in scholarly journals, the academic impact of those publications, and major prizes and awards. Service tends to be acknowledged when it is service to the discipline, such as sitting on editorial boards, rather than service within a university  or in non-academic organizations, supervising students, or teaching courses.

Women and racialized researchers tend to have more university service requests and more student supervisions, colloquially known as a ‘culture tax’ as they are expected to represent their group.

Such academic service work takes a lot of time away from research and seldom receives credit or acknowledgement and does not contribute to grant successes yet is essential as we create a more diverse research stream in Canada.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The federal government should overhaul Canada’s granting agencies with an equity lens. Proactive equity policies stemming from the federal government will fast track this process. The result would be a healthier and more robust research ecosystem that would benefit everyone.

Over the past few years, Canadian universities have successfully hired more diverse scholars. Now we need to ensure these scholars are supported in a way they can be successful, particularly in producing novel and useful research.

Since 2019, NSERC has made a concerted effort to mitigate bias in their system and the success rates for men and women are more closely aligned. Such efforts need to be taken at all three research councils for women and for all equity-seeking groups.

There are ways of reducing bias that can make the current funding go further.

• The Tri-Council granting agencies already ask applicants for their equity information; more can be done using these data to make inequities more transparent. This information could be used to develop new ways of awarding and developing scholars.
• Reviewers of grant proposals need to value scholarship that is untraditional or unconventional and to value teaching and academic service work by including these categories in the adjudication process.
• Set funding allocations specifically for all equity-seeking groups. Affirmative action policies work.
• Granting agencies could develop a novel system of non-competitive grant allocations where researchers submit proposals, but instead of the complex and costly adjudication process, all high-quality applications are equally funded. Researchers would need to be accountable for the funds they receive and demonstrate they are undertaking their proposed work. The grants may be smaller but the stable and predictable funding would enable more innovative research.

Canada is looking for research innovation. We should start first with how we give out research grants. We could unleash enormous new research potential if we’d simply give equity-seeking groups a chance at the funding.

Janet Mantler is an Associate Professor in the Psychology of Work at Carleton University. Ivy Bourgeault is a University of Ottawa Research Chair in Gender, Diversity and the Professions. Nicole Power is a Professor in the Department of Sociology at Memorial University.

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