The Liberals are getting in their own way on gender equality in science

A lack of gender equality in science is holding Canada back. When will the government take real action?

(L-R) Third year Biology students Sara Abdi and Negar Labbae are protein sampling inside a teaching lab, at the new Life Sciences Building at York. York University, Toronto, Ontario, 2012 .(Photograph by Jessica Darmanin)

(L-R) Third year Biology students Sara Abdi and Negar Labbae are protein sampling inside a teaching lab, at the new Life Sciences Building at York. York University, Toronto, Ontario, 2012 .(Photograph by Jessica Darmanin)

During her time in academia, Kirsty Duncan—now the Liberals’ science minister—says she endured constant sexism; she witnessed many more instances of it in the research field. “Now, as Canada’s Minister of Science, I hear similar stories from women researchers who, in 2017, continue to suffer the same degradations, marginalization and challenges that I did,” Duncan writes in a recent op-ed for The Globe and Mail.

The barriers faced by women in the STEM fields is a problem—a well-documented one with significant consequences to our country and our ability to innovate. But by all accounts, the federal government’s promise of actual action—a science-based value system to guide its agenda—appears to have been halted.

For starters, there has been no appointment of a chief scientific advisor. The advisor is the key for evidence-based policy decisions and science communication, offering impartial advice to the government as it passes legislation that affects our health and well-being, examines the deleterious effects of climate change, and looks at the impact of discovery science on innovation as the engine for economic growth.

The chief scientific advisor is also proposed as the vice chair of a new National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation that would be the basis of the recently submitted Naylor report on Fundamental Science. The report, a product of an expert panel chaired by Dr. David Naylor, shows a continued decline in research outcomes using every international criterion of excellence.

That report drew attention to the fact that Canada’s efforts to select the world’s best international scholars, the Canada Excellence Research chair selection process, doesn’t work. The process—which is carried out through the universities themselves—defies common sense, with 25 positions awarded to men and one solitary woman. This is exasperated by a consideration of the next level of research chairs that represent the tier I and tier II Canada Research chairs, where less than a third of the positions have gone to women.

And the outcomes of the Canada Excellence Research chair and Canada Research chair programs have regrettably not met expectations. As of today, according to the performance measures of the quality and impact of science by Canada as found in the Naylor report, the impact of these programs on Canada’s international profile has been negligible; it has been a poor return on the $10 million in taxpayer dollars for seven years for each Canada Excellence Chair and $250 million per year for the less prestigious Canada research chairs. Even worse, for the Canada Research Chairs in Health allied disciplines, less than half are competitive to obtain operating grants from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research. Canadian taxpayers have sent millions each year to universities and hospitals to recruit research scholars, most of whom are uncompetitive to do the research they were recruited to pursue.

The solution envisaged by the minister—to give the universities two years to achieve equity—does not address the lack of global competitiveness. Italy and India, for example, have moved ahead of Canada in research output with our global rank currently dropping to ninth from seventh in 2010. Our scientific papers are read less than those published elsewhere, and our share of international prizes continues to decrease with the most notable the lack of a Nobel Prize in Medicine since our one and only award in 1923 for the discovery of insulin.

It is, after all, young talent that makes discoveries, and the young discovery researcher and especially women scientists have been particularly hard hit by these realities. This bleak outcome is consequent to the current emphasis on priority-driven and partnership-oriented research at the expense of discovery research, which is the foundation for any attempt to generate value for any such Canadian discoveries. This is the basis for innovation and without discoveries there is no innovation.

There are models that have worked elsewhere that could meet the expectations and international criteria of excellence documented in the Naylor report. The recently opened Crick institute in London, based on a prior European model, is targeted to the young discovery researcher. Following their models, we could gather together the most talented young discovery researchers in a single new institute for a limited time—say, 10 to 12 years—but with a one to one ratio of men and women discovery researchers. This ratio won’t be so hard to achieve; most health research labs in Canada already have a majority of women in the lab and serving as research trainees. If the board of directors included senior mentors with a track record in drug discovery and application, the young talent could learn how to create value for their discoveries. This may be essential for any future credibility in programs such as the recently announced $950 million “Innovation Superclusters Initiative” that depends on a pipeline of discovery research for any attempt at global competitiveness.

The Naylor report clearly indicates what will happen if immediate action is not taken to reverse Canada’s slide away from excellence in discovery research—and implementing it can help halt this slide. But the Naylor report, too, has not yet been implemented by the government—which would be an important step toward real action for equity.

The harm that’s already been done to our young talent—and especially young women in the field—has already led to the most talented no longer considering discovery research in health in Canada as a viable career choice. An additional mechanism as successfully employed in the UK and continental Europe may be needed to gather our brightest and best young men and women to turn around the current bleak prospects for Canada in discovery research as the necessary base for Innovation. It is this concentration of young talent that would be selected to transform our universities, create the next generation of biotech, and—who knows—maybe even bring back big pharma preclinical research to Canada, something that has been abandoned.

Can gender equality be a solution for the lack of competitiveness for Canadian discovery research? The answer is an unqualified and resounding yes. The one to one ratio of men and women scientists in this new institute would define Canada as an international beacon for equity and excellence and may be the only solution for global competitiveness.

John Bergeron is a professor of medicine at McGill University and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

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