Improving CRC equity: You can’t fairly recruit into unfair positions

I recently became interested in how Canada Research Chairs (CRCs) are recruited after my former faculty[*] posted a position for a CRC Tier II in Northern Aboriginal Health Research in the School of Public Health (SPH) at the University of Alberta. As a student representative on a CRC hiring committee previously I was somewhat familiar with the process, but this posting made me realize that there are some issues with the CRC Program. I had some concerns about the position that I shared with the SPH Advisory Selection Committee (ASC) in a letter on April 5th [†].

Coincidentally, in the weeks following my letter, there have been increasing conversations about equity in the CRC Program. Notably, federal granting agencies have threatened to stop providing CRC funding to institutions that don’t reach equity targets. However, I don’t think that equity in the CRC Program will be achieved through reaching a select number of targets. True equity will only be achieved through preventing exclusion, rather than mandating inclusion of four designated groups. Academia needs a rich breadth of perspectives to reach its full potential, including people from diverse social classes and people trained in diverse knowledge systems. For example, ensuring there are “enough” women is a weak target if all of those women are relatively rich and white. Unless institutions find ways to foster the most creative scientists, rather than settle for convenience and cronyism, academia will face increasing public legitimacy challenges.

In light of these ongoing conversations, I decided to share some of my concerns about recruitment for CRCs and equity more broadly, using some specifics from the CRC process in the SPH. From what I’ve learned about the CRC process, most of the concerns I had about the SPH position would be resolved if there were better institutional and programmatic policies, which we all can/should contribute to.

The CRC Program is not a legitimate authority on Indigenous expertise, and should not be providing titles of Indigenous expertise through colonial institutions.

When I first read the title proposed by the SPH, I set out to learn more about CRCs with “Indigenous” expertise. What I (and others) found was that 48% of scholars with these titles went to non-Indigenous people (13/27[‡]). While there is no evidence that non-Indigenous CRCs who have “Indigenous” are illegitimate, there is also no evidence they are legitimate. In the absence of a transparent process to ensure that individuals given these important titles are accepted by the communities they claim to work for, given the history of colonial academia, it’s safer to assume they are not legitimate. Unless institutions and the CRC Program can work out a process to ensure that these titles are provided in a transparent and community-approved manner, they should probably stop allowing colonial institutions to assign them. At the least, CRC should engage Indigenous scholars to determine what an appropriate process would be.

Institutions should not allow faculties to recruit CRCs intended to benefit Indigenous communities without engagement of relevant communities.

There are 45 non-Indigenous CRCs that indicate they do research on issues relating to Indigenous Peoples, but there is no transparent process to ensure that this is research that Indigenous communities want, or that they would support researchers receiving CRCs based on the work they’ve done with Indigenous communities. People in communities that I work with are very aware of the professional benefits that academics derive from working with them, and would likely have some questions for researchers using their partnerships explicitly to receive a prestigious personal promotion.

Allowing institutions to provide these chairs continues the tradition of academic institutions appropriating Indigeneity for their own benefit (both personally and institutionally). In the example of my faculty, senior leadership determined that in order to be in line with U of Alberta priorities, demonstrate its commitment to the north, and increase the presence of the SPH in the north, they should use their CRC allotment to recruit a Northern Aboriginal Health Systems researcher. None of the executive members in the SPH are northerners. They did not engage northerners in determining this focus. The candidate they choose will get reviewed against institutional fit, not “northern fit”. In the end, the SPH could get $1,000,000 while the northerners who they are claiming to benefit are guaranteed nothing, and may not even support the successful nominee. Yes, the person who receives the chair will have to ensure their research complies with the TCPS (national ethics statement) on research with Indigenous communities, but that doesn’t guarantee that the communities they partner with will feel that the benefits of the research they have contributed to are being shared with them equitably.

Institutions that aspire to improve their equity in CRCs need to recognize how exploitive this process can be to Indigenous research partners, and ensure that CRC position appointments aren’t simply perpetuating colonial practices. If institutions want to use CRC recruitment to demonstrate their commitment to Indigenous communities and increase their presence in those communities, they should actually talk to them before handing out titles[§].

Equity ‘sticks’ need to filter down to faculties

The CRC Program has a lot of requirements for how institutions and faculties need to ensure the recruitment process is fair and transparent, but none of this matters if position descriptions are written so narrowly that only a few (probably select) applicants apply. What is stopping leadership in faculties for writing chair positions to benefit their colleagues or preferred candidates?

Cronyism has been a long-standing criticism of the CRC Program.

If institutions want to fix their equity numbers, they need to intervene with faculties before positions are created. They can do a lot to prevent crony hiring into these positions, and start by examining position “competitions” that result in very few qualified applicants.

Do not require that faculties identify the CRC title ahead of time, and stop requiring “Strategic Research Plan” fit

How can the CRC Program argue that it is funding and promoting leaders when these “leaders” are required to fit into an existing institutional plan? And I doubt that Strategic Research Plans are a good yardstick to measure innovative researchers against (Note: “demonstrated priority areas” seem to be just strategic research plans by a different name). Many “strategic” “plans” are neither strategic (in that they try to encompass everything the institution is doing) or “plans” (in that they seem to be descriptions of what already exists at the institution)[**]. The CRC Program should empower institutions to grow based on talent and research areas that administrators who draft ‘strategic plans’ may not be currently aware of. Give them funding and leeway to take risks, instead of feeling obligated to pick “safe” nominees that will get through the current CRC review process.

It seems at least some institutional strategic planning was born out of the CRC Program. From the Canadian Association of University Teachers Alternative 5th Year Review of the CRC Program:

“Universities’ strategic plans must be serious documents that are created in a consultative manner through their senior academic bodies – not documents thrown together over a summer to meet a federal government program requirement.”

Institutions should also not require that faculties with allocated chairs identify the area of the chair they want to recruit. The SPH had to pick an area, and picked “Northern Aboriginal Health Systems”. As someone who has worked in “Northern Aboriginal Health” for almost a decade, I found this set of limiters very narrow. What if only a single qualified individual fits into those categories? Should we just hire them? Is hiring the wrong person who gets CRC funding better than not having CRC funding? I think faculties should be free to leave CRC position descriptions vague, and have the best individuals in the broad areas of the faculty explain what they will bring.[††]

Pay attention to how position requirements and review standards might differentially impact different applicants

How position requirements are framed can severely limit who might apply to them. The SPH application required 30% of the person’s time would need to be spent in a Northern Regional Centre. What if an emerging scholar can’t afford to set up two places of work and life? There was no mention in the job ad of negotiations to set out how this would be paid for or what it would entail. Requirements like this can discourage applicants from applying. Likely, it would also more systematically discourage marginalized applicants, who may be less likely to have social and financial capital needed to meet such a requirement.

Additionally, many things that ‘traditionally’ make CRC Tier II nominees more appealing (more grants, more publications, more awards, etc), are often markers of privilege and “ins”, not research excellence. For ‘emerging researchers’, it’s a lot easier to look productive when you have access to research funds and big research groups. Researchers who got started early with small awards (summer studentships, travel grants, etc), are more likely to get larger awards as their careers progress. These privileged individuals may get to a point where they’ve accumulated enough “history of receiving funding” to be reviewed favourably for larger awards like a CRC much earlier on in their careers. This system of “money begets money” is somewhat independent of the quality of the work the person is producing, or the creativity of the work they want to do. The same phenomenon happens with productivity. People who happen to work in large research groups often have opportunities to be included as authors on publications that they personally had to do very little work on. Researchers who work in smaller groups, or on projects they are tackling alone as unfunded graduate students, will not have the same number of publications, but that doesn’t make them less productive scientists, or less likely to be productive in the future.

If we put too much emphasis on past productivity and recognition, we risk systematically providing CRCs to researchers who are simply connected, not exceptional, systematically leaving out a broad range of perspectives and ideas from groups unable to crack the system in time to be competitive with their well-connected peers.

The CRC Program should also drop the College of Reviewers. The process to get nominated is already peer-reviewed, and arguably more rigorously than a paper-based system will ever be. Guarantee that universities will get the money, and release them from the pressure to hire people who conform enough to be attractive to anonymous and unpredictable reviewers.

Release more data on chairs, applicants, and reviewers

Without more data on the applicants and reviewers, it’s really difficult to determine where the source of inequity actually is. The CRC program needs to, at the least, release aggregate data on applicants and the college of reviewers.

I also think they also need to re-evaluate their evaluation process. From the CRC 15 year evaluation:

“According to the bibliometric analysis, CRCP’s successful nominees almost systematically outperform unsuccessful nominees in terms of scientific impact, scientific quality and output (i.e., number of published papers) prior to the nomination process, indicating a potential validation of the program’s peer review process.”

The CRC asked the college of reviewers to assess researcher potential on the basis of their previous scientific outputs, and then found CRCs had more outputs pre-award. Of course the awarded CRCs have more pre-award scientific outputs…productivity is one of the criteria for receiving the award. What does this prove? That reviewers can count? Why are we impressed with this? Is this not evidence that they are simply using publication metrics to determine who gets CRCs?

The evaluation also found this:

“Scientific impact decreases by about 8% after the award but remains higher than unsuccessful applicants (whose impact remains no different from before nomination)”

So it means that the people they did not give money and dedicated time for research to have maintained the same level of outputs, while the people who they did give money and dedicated time for research to have decreased their level of output. They concluded “it is improbable that the award itself contributed to the decrease in impact”. The CRC Program cannot assume this and needs to explore it further. If I were them, I would argue that it’s possible CRCs are doing more creative and innovative research which takes more time and could decrease countable measures of productivity. Of course, if I were me, I would argue back that we need a better peer review that can capture creativity and innovation prior to distributing hundreds of millions of dollars. Until they control their analyses for things like “percent of time dedicate to research” and “whether or not the chair had to switch institutions”, I would be very hesitant to draw conclusions from this data.

The CRC Program evaluation wouldn’t pass peer review, and this reviewer suggests they release more detailed methods and results if they expect to use this data to prove the effectiveness of the program.

As a final note, I wrote this before I had read the CRC Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Action Plan. This plan doesn’t really change how I feel about the process overall. It includes having a “consultation with key stakeholders [that] will provide an opportunity for all individuals to give their feedback through an open forum on the CRCP website” (to be implemented Spring/Summer 2017).

If you got this far, you clearly care about the CRC Program. So whether you agree with me or not, be sure to participate in the open forum.

[*] I completed my degree requirements on April 26th, so I am no longer a student at the SPH.

[†] The ASC formally responded to me on April 28th, although I will not be sharing their response.

[‡] I originally used the publicly available CRC data which resulted in an estimation of 9/23. Since then, I’ve received a copy of the list of active CRCs from the CRC Program, and revised the estimate in collaboration with Indigenous scholars.

[§] Please, no one lecture me about how they aren’t “handed out” but selected through a competitive peer review. There’s an average success rate of 90%. That’s not a competition, that’s a rubber stamping

[**] Strategic plans would be better if they were more along the lines of “foster creative science” or “hire the best people and stay out of their way” or “resist the urge to over-train grad students that we can’t provide jobs for later…” I’ve digressed.

[††] Of course, I’m personally biased here. There is probably never going to be position recruiting for “PhD in Public Health and an interest in science policy who studies knowledge commons from an organizational theory perspective and an equity lens derived from experience doing health research with marginalized populations”. But as funding agencies continue to push for interdisciplinary work, I am also not alone. Institutions must adjust their hiring practices for those “HQPs” they insist need to be produced at perpetually increasing rates.


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