Excellence and Equity: Here we go again

June 11, 2010

Cressida Heyes, University of Alberta

Guest Contributor

On May 17, Industry Minister Tony Clement announced the appointment of 19 Canada Excellence Research Chairs to Canadian universities. This new program aims to recruit the elite of the international research elite in those areas the federal government thinks are important to our “economic growth” and “future prosperity.” These areas are, predictably, environmental sciences and technologies, natural resources and energy, health and related life sciences and technologies, and information and communications technologies.

All 19 chairs are men.

In the media coverage of the appointments, the complete lack of women has been a big talking point – including talking about how we shouldn’t be talking about it at all.

On the one hand, seasoned equity activists have pointed out that discrimination against women in the established Canada Research Chairs program was challenged through the Canadian Human Rights Commission and resulted in the federal government committing to proceed more equitably in the future.

Realising the negative optics of the emerging CERC line-up, the Minister formed an ad hoc panel in March, when the nominations were finalised but not yet announced.

The panel (of scientists and engineers with policy experience, not experts on the politics of recruitment) was asked to investigate and report on “gender issues.” Its report reinvents painfully basic points about equity in selection practices.

The report concludes that the process for nominating and selecting CERCs was flawed in a number of ways. Advertising and recruitment should have been more proactive, and less formulaic and dependent on existing networks; the emphasis on very senior researchers working in narrowly defined areas de facto (and to no vital intellectual gain) excluded women, who are represented in greater numbers at lower ranks and in more multidisciplinary areas of research; timelines should not have been so compressed; and the selection process should have been made less competitive for confirmed nominees to lower the opportunity cost of pursuing a Chair.

This analysis is drawn mostly from a 2006 report by the U.S. National Academies on bias and barriers to women in science and engineering. And that report was preceded by numerous other policy documents challenging inequity in hiring practices – from Canada’s own Employment Equity Act to the extensive archive on the flaws in the CRC program. So the March report by the Ad Hoc Panel on CERC Gender Issues reinvents the wheel. Again. And after the fact.

The national press, on the other hand, has covered the gender flush as an irritating sidebar, rolling out women columnists to beat the drum of rewarding ability over providing “special treatment.” Have women launched campaigns to get men into traditionally female-dominated areas? asks Tasha Kheiriddin in The National Post, rhetorically (the answer, actually, is yes). “Excellence, not equity, should be the deciding factor.” Blogs and comment pages exploded with anonymous consensus that self-hating Canadians were yet again reluctant to celebrate our world-class brain gain, while the Women’s Studies harpies just wanted top jobs for sub-par females.

In main street Canada it’s righteous to pit excellence and equity against each other. The research superheroes are mostly men, the story goes, with ‘rising star’ women coming up on the inside track. Just wait. The next generation will be more balanced, as the very last vestiges of discrimination fade away. Unless women keep on making detrimental “choices” of course—like having babies and taking care of them, or being trailing spouses on the professional-couple trajectory, or being interested in useless things like literature, nursing, education, or art. (The unwitting “equity” gesture of the CERC program? Several of the chairs negotiated faculty positions for their wives.) Who is to quibble with someone’s choices?

Showing why the CERC program and its ilk are inequitable is complicated, more complicated than a headline announcing “excellence, not equity.” If you define a program’s mandate as recruiting very high-flying and prestigious individuals working in science, technology, and engineering and you ask other such people to do the recruiting, you’ll mostly get men recruiting men. (Likely recruiting Anglo, white men of a certain age with degrees and appointments from a shortlist of elite institutions, so the equity picture is much bigger than gender.) This we know. The communications challenge for defenders of equity is not only to show how this process was flawed, but why this definition of excellence might be too narrow, even on its own terms.

The Harper government has not been shy about using its funding power to steer university research priorities toward business, information technologies, and applied health and engineering sciences. The CERC program goes even further, as Sumitra Rajagopalan (who thinks the all-male line-up is fair enough) points out in the Globe and Mail, with a nanotechnologist tasked to focus on applications related to tar sands extraction. The original mandate required one CERC assigned to research that will benefit the automotive industry. This is ideological maneuvering, defended to Canadians on the grounds that it will grow our economy, improve our quality of life, lead to scientific breakthroughs.

But steering a researcher toward a narrowly defined applied project is not the best base for knowledge creation. Solid investment in general science in universities – science that often seems abstract or pointless, that goes where the work leads, that supports researchers all the way down to undergraduates – is likely a better long-term strategy for a leading scientific culture. Government underfunding of the system as a whole cannot be undone by hiring a few individuals at the top. The new CERC in Diabetes might spearhead a crucial breakthrough at the level of islet transplantation (for example). And I sincerely hope he does. But we already know that many cases of diabetes can be prevented or managed by good diet and exercise. Scholars in Public Health, Nursing, Sociology, all are doing important research on how to change physical and food environments for better health. But they’ll look in vain for the kind of team-based, multi-million dollar support that the CERCs have. Indeed, their universities are likely to be frantically subsidising the CERC program with whatever flex funds they can muster.

The narrowness of the CERC program and the critique from equity come together in another way. The blogosphere is shockingly full of Canadians ready to mock the social sciences, humanities, and fine arts for their “uselessness,” self-indulgence, or irrelevance to contemporary life. It’s not a coincidence that this is where most women on campus are found as both faculty and students. I appreciate that running a lab is more expensive than writing books, but the massively disproportionate investment in forms of applied inquiry explicitly divorced from cultural context, political critique, or artistic representation is both intellectually dangerous and inequitable.

We divest from the arts because they are perceived as useless – and it’s not a coincidence that things that women inquire into (think: research on early child development) are also routinely trivialized, even when they are just as central to the health and future of the nation as the grander projects of research ‘leaders’. Such divestment also divests from women’s education and careers, and at the same time, limits our intellectual vision.

In other words, if we thought a bit harder about what excellence itself is, we might find ourselves thinking differently about who is excellent.

Cressida Heyes is a Canada Research Chair and professor of Philosophy at the University of Alberta.