Black scientists won't stay in Canada without equitable research funding, experts say
'Canada has to wake up and understand that we need to keep our scientists here,' says McGill prof
The system for granting federal research funding in Canada fails to give Black scientists the support they need to optimize their work, professors and researchers say.
Not providing that stability for researchers may result in a brain drain to other countries, says Lawrence Goodridge, who has worked in the U.S. and Canada.
Goodridge holds the Leung Family Professorship in Food Safety at the University of Guelph and is director of the school's Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety. He said historical bias has negatively impacted racialized populations and women researchers in the STEMM fields — science, technology, engineering, math and medicine.
He said one common criteria for determining who gets grant funding in Canada is if a candidate demonstrates leadership or has received grants before.
If you believe that the research is enhanced by the diversity of the people who are doing it, the entire society benefits, because of the diversity, because of the richness of the information that we're getting.- Carl James, York University
"The problem is that women and racialized populations generally have not had those … leadership opportunities and they're less likely to be perceived as leaders," he said in an interview on CBC Kitchener-Waterloo's The Morning Edition. "This therefore affects their grant success."
Carl James, a professor at York University in Toronto and the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora, agrees that different life and work experiences from Black and other racialized researchers don't always get the recognition they should by people who review grant applications.
"If you believe that the research is enhanced by the diversity of the people who are doing it, the entire society benefits, because of the diversity, because of the richness of the information that we're getting," he said.
Difficulty in getting funding
Juliet Daniel is a cancer biologist, and associate dean of research and external relations in the faculty of science at McMaster University in Hamilton.
She recalls one application she put forward in the early 2000s for research into how breast cancer appeared to disproportionately affect Black women. One reviewer commented that her research was "not relevant to the Canadian context."
"Oh, excuse me, but we have Black people here," Daniel recalled thinking about the comment. She received the funding the third time she applied.
Loydie Jerome-Majewska is an associate professor in the pediatrics department at McGill University in Montreal who studies developmental genetics and specifically malformations in newborns. She said she's had luck with grant funding when she's listed as a collaborator.
But when her name is on the application as principal investigator, "even though the grants may be ranked really high, they don't get funded."
She said she's received scores of 4.6 out of five on grant applications and has been denied the money.
Jerome-Majewska said she doesn't believe she's been denied funding because she's Black, but the inability to get the money she needs has been discouraging.
"They're not saying that your science sucks. It's just that, well, there's very little money and we know this other person, and it's probably subconscious, right? We can identify with this other person," Jerome-Majewska said. "The system is set up so that Black investigators are not in the room."
Tri-councils aim to be more equitable
The three main sources of grant funding in Canada are known as the tri-councils:
- Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).
- Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).
- Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).
When scientists apply for grant funding, the applications are reviewed by a panel of fellow researchers from across the country. Goodridge said the panels often are "not as diverse as they could be. We also know that there could be an unconscious bias that exists in those panels."
We need to ensure persons from all backgrounds are welcomed in the lab, the field and the classroom.- Laurie Bouchard, spokesperson for minister of innovation, science and industry
But there does appear to be an appetite for change — all three councils have launched equity and diversity initiatives.
The federal government acknowledges "many people face systemic barriers to their participation in society and the economy, including in post-secondary research settings. Our government is committed to standing up for diversity and inclusion, which is why we are continuously taking action," Laurie Bouchard, spokesperson for Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry François-Philippe Champagne, said in an email.
Along with the equity, diversity and inclusion work of the tri-councils, Bouchard said, the Canada Research Chairs program has "taken extensive actions to address the underrepresentation of individuals."
Bouchard noted that as of October 2021, 40.9 per cent of Canada Research Chairs identify as women, 22.8 per cent as members of visible minorities, 5.8 per cent as a person with disabilities and 3.4 per cent as Indigenous.
The government set equity targets in 2017, and updated them in 2018, for visible minorities to make up at least 22 per cent of chairs by 2029, which has been reached, Bouchard said, adding they want to see even more diversity.
She said the government has invested in research, including $250 million for a new tri-agency biomedical research fund, as well as $1 billion for the Strategic Innovation Fund in the 2021 budget.
For Canadian researchers to reach their full potential, "we need to ensure persons from all backgrounds are welcomed in the lab, the field and the classroom," Bouchard said.
Change requires 'bold ideas'
Daniel said in the past two years — since the death of George Floyd in the U.S. on May 25, 2020 — institutions and groups in Canada now appear ready to have serious conversations about racism.
She sits on the CIHR external advisory committee on anti-racism, which was started in 2021, and said the group has put "bold ideas on the table" to improve the equity of grants, although she can't speak publicly about them yet.
Daniel said one of her ideas is to give all researchers in Canada the same base funding. If it doesn't cover their work, then they can apply for additional grants. But, Daniel said, that would also require the federal government to provide more research funding in general.
She urges young Black scientists who may be concerned about their futures in Canada is to continue with their research goals, because she feels change to support them is coming.
Daniel also encourages joining groups like the Canadian Black Scientist Network for mentorship opportunities.
She'd also like to see a program now at Dalhousie University in Halifax in other parts of Canada. The aim of the Imhotep's Legacy Academy is to "improve student success and bridge the achievement gap for Grades 6 to 12 students of African heritage" in Nova Scotia, the program's website says. She plans to start a pilot at McMaster in the near future.
Daniel said more needs to be done to encourage young Black students to pursue their research goals.
"Some of these kids probably could be Nobel Prize winners, but they're dropping out of the system, or self-selecting out or being selected out or pushed out by a system that is not representing them, and their uniqueness, and their various gifts and cultural identities."
James, who has researched systemic barriers and racial inequities, leads the new program Securing Black Futures. Launched in October, with the goal of seeing better representation of Black youth at Canadian universities, it helps senior high school students plan for the future.
"We are trying to help Black students go on the path towards the kind of occupations that they might have interest in," James said.
Jerome-Majewska said she's had offers to go to the U.S. to do her research, but said her family and the desire to see things change have kept her in Canada.
"Canada has to wake up and understand that we need to keep our scientists here," she said.
She said policymakers need to be "brave and make the right decision" to support researchers in Canada, and if funding isn't available and equitable, it will lead to generations of researchers going elsewhere.
"And," she added, "everybody will see them leaving."
LISTEN | Guelph professor Lawrence Goodridge says research grants funding system in Canada needs overhaul:
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.