NSERC 2030: A Strategic Plan

Discussion papers

Supporting equity, diversity and inclusion in the research community

This document is one of a series of discussion papers generated by NSERC staff to foster discussion during the development of the NSERC 2030 strategic plan. Items presented do not represent policy directions; they are meant to elicit discussion among NSERC’s stakeholders. Similarly, all themes discussed in these papers are cost-neutral: they would not require new program funding or cuts to existing programming in order to fund new initiatives.

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The Canadian population is particularly diverse. Yet underrepresentation of women, Indigenous Peoples, many racialized groups, people with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ2+ communities persists across the natural sciences and engineering.

NSERC is already committed to a “diversified and competitive research base” (NSERC, 2020). Since 2018, many of its activities to promote equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) have been guided by the Tri-Agency EDI Action Plan, which aims to ensure fair access to research support and equitable participation in the research system (Tri-Agency, 2018).

Similarly, the 2021 Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) report Powering Discovery identified various practices that funders can adopt to support EDI, which span from increased outreach, mentoring and guidance in obtaining funding, to double-blind peer review and broadening funding criteria, to setting diversity targets (CCA, 2021). The report also examined the impact of institution-based “charter programs” such as the Tri-Agency (NSERC, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council [SSHRC] and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research [CIHR]) pilot program Dimensions, noting these programs’ beneficial impact, particularly if they are accompanied by funding to assist institutions in sustaining their efforts.

The report also touched on barriers related to family commitments, which was also emphasized by many respondents to the NSERC 2030 survey. Concerns related to work-life balance were frequently mentioned in response to open-ended questions on the challenges researchers face. Moreover, many respondents underscored the notion of “economic accessibility” to research careers, i.e., the value of stipends or awards through prolonged stages of training.

Opportunities, risks and strategic considerations

Currently, NSERC’s EDI efforts are focused on:

  • Equity as ensuring fairness in processes for allocating resources, eliminating discrimination based on identity and ensuring, to the best degree possible, equal opportunities
  • Diversity, involving concerted efforts to ensure inclusion of diverse populations relative to identities such as gender, sexual orientation, Indigenous status, disability, race, ethnicity, language and other attributes
  • Inclusion, ensuring, in a given environment, that all people are respected equitably and have access to the same opportunities; identifying and removing barriers that inhibit natural science and engineering (NSE) researchers’ participation and contribution
  • Accessibility, through the removal of barriers (e.g., architectural or technological) that hinder participation of persons with disabilities

Accessibility is often being added to EDI, resulting in the acronym IDEA.

These concepts have two broad implications. First, regarding diversity, NSERC aims to attain a proportion of funded researchers that is representative of the Canadian population. Data analyses indicate there are notable variations in representation of the four self-identification groups for which data are now available relative to the Canadian population.

Moreover, there are important variations across career stages (doctorate versus postdoctoral fellow versus faculty) and differences between programs (Discovery grants versus Alliance grants). Disaggregated data reveal important variations within these four groups, particularly as individuals may belong to more than one group, and may face cumulative discriminatory barriers, which an intersectional analysis can help expose.

Attaining representation that mirrors the country depends on a multitude of societal factors beyond NSERC’s control. Accordingly, more modest gains may be worth securing to ensure the NSE research community holds “representative legitimacy” relative to society and its reliance on science (Curry, S., de Rijcke, S., Hatch, A. et al., 2020).

In regard to equity and inclusion, there is growing recognition that, beyond narrow indicators of quality that perpetuate well-established and broadly accepted approaches to research, more comprehensive criteria to determine research excellence help capture perspectives often embraced by scientists from underrepresented groups. This is particularly prevalent when addressing indigenous research and the decolonization of science and engineering. (See discussion paper on Supporting Indigenous Researchers and Research)

Moreover, recognizing that all researchers, particularly those with caring responsibilities, do not follow research career trajectories that progress linearly, assessments should be less tied to time span, and more focused on the quality of contributions.

Given NSERC’s ongoing EDI work, other forms of inequities, underrepresentation or exclusion may be worth further exploration, such as variations across different types and sizes of institutions; inequities related to linguistic identity or immigration status (including barriers related to credentials of international researchers); and inequities in the distribution of societal benefits resulting from advances in science and technology.

Overall, while reducing inequities and fostering diversity and inclusion have been recognized as key to innovation, this work is not without risks. Hurried or simplistic solutions can have detrimental repercussions; underrepresented groups are overly relied upon to advance EDI; financial support is precarious; and personal and public opinion can be unpredictable and can undermine these efforts. Building a broad coalition across identity groups and across stakeholders in the research ecosystem is a necessary prerequisite for EDI success.

Discussion questions

  • NSERC’S ongoing commitment to EDI addresses measures to ensure access to research support (with a focus on funding to researchers) and ensure equitable participation in the research ecosystem (with a focus on support for postsecondary institutions). Over the next decade, how should NSERC divide its efforts across these two spheres, particularly to increase participation of different underrepresented groups in the NSE research ecosystem?
  • Participation rates by women, visible minorities and racialized groups vary significantly across programs (Discovery grants versus Alliance grants) and across disciplines. Should NSERC explore specific measures to address these diversity gaps? Should special programs be targeted exclusively to certain underrepresented groups to provide better opportunities?
  • Determining fair access to research support involves ensuring parity between the proportion of applicants from an identity group and the proportion of awards to applicants from that group. To accelerate this process, should NSERC explore other equity measures, such as dedicated funding to institutions, to career stages, or to identity groups? Should it explore setting targets and /or equalizing outcomes?


Council of Canadian Academies. (2021). Powering Discovery: The Expert Panel on International Practices for Funding Natural Sciences and Engineering Research. Ottawa, ON: Council of Canadian Academies. Retrieved from https://cca-reports.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Powering-Discovery-Full-Report-EN_DIGITAL_FINAL.pdf

Curry, S., de Rijcke, S., Hatch, A. et al. (2020). The changing role of funders in responsible research assessment : progress, obstacles and the way ahead. Research on Research Institute (RoRI) working paper. UK: White Rose University Consortium. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.13227914.v1

NSERC. (2020). NSERC 2020: A Strategic Plan. Retrieved from https://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/nserc-crsng/nserc2020-crsng2020/index_eng.asp

Tri-Agency. (2018). Tri-Agency EDI Action Plan for 2018–2025. Retrieved from https://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/NSERC-CRSNG/EDI-EDI/Action-Plan_Plan-dAction_eng.asp

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