Many universities across Canada are introducing term limits for their Canada Research Chairs to get new academics into the jobs as the prestigious program struggles to meet diversity targets set by a court settlement.
The Canada Research Chairs gives annual funding of $100,000 or $200,000 to successful academics for research projects. The program is divided into Tier 1 chairs, who have seven-year terms that can be renewed indefinitely, and Tier 2 chairs, who have five-year terms that can be renewed once. Federal granting councils allocate the 1,600 chairs among universities, and the schools nominate academics to fill those positions.
The federal government told universities in May that they had until Dec. 15 to write an action plan on how to boost the diversity of their nominees, and another 18 to 24 months to follow through on those plans, or they could lose their research chair funding.
Because of a 2006 legal settlement, the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) program was obligated to set equity targets that match the number of academics eligible for the positions. For instance, 31 per cent of chairs are supposed to go to women, but in data from 2015 and 2016, fewer than 28 per cent of chairs were female. Universities have generally failed to meet the targets, but the government has only begun to threaten to enforce them in the past year.
The other three groups are visible minorities (15 per cent), Indigenous people (1 per cent), and people with a disability (4 per cent).
The University of Ottawa, which has frequently fallen short of its targets, says it is now limiting Tier 1 chairs to two terms as a way to get new academics into the program.
"This will help our university to meet its equity targets," said Sylvain Charbonneau, interim vice-president of research.
As of May, U of O had 55 research chairs, although a few terms were to expire since then. The federal granting councils allocated up to 75 seats for the university in 2014, meaning many could be vacant. The university could not provide more up-to-date numbers on Thursday.
As of July 1, the university had met its target of nine chairs who are visible minorities, but had only 14 women (short of the target of 19) and did not have two professors with a disability or one Indigenous scholar in the program.
Nine chairs at U of O are scheduled to reach a term limit in the next two years, and another six will finish their first terms.
Other institutions that are beginning to voluntarily limit the terms of their chairs include York University, Queen's University and the University of Montreal.
Vivek Goel, vice-president of research and innovation at the University of Toronto, said his school has long limited its chairs to two terms – both endowed positions and CRCs – to give as many academics these opportunities as possible.
"It's our view that if we don't have everyone that can be engaged in the research engaged, we're not going to have the most excellent research," Prof. Goel said.
He said it has been difficult to enforce the turnover in chairs when other schools do not.
"As you can imagine, some of our chair-holders who are coming to [the end of their terms] are saying: 'Oh, but it's not a limitation of the program, or it's not a limitation at this other institution, so why do you have this in place," Prof. Goel said.
Term limits were recommended earlier this year by the federal granting councils and in the government-commissioned Fundamental Science Review, known as the Naylor Report.
Kirsty Duncan, the federal Science Minister and a former academic, said she welcomes the universities' new policies.
"I have been clear that academic institutions must meet their Equity, Diversity, Inclusion Action Plan for the Canada Research Chair (CRC) program within two years or risk funding for the new chairs," Dr. Duncan said in a statement.
"I will be outlining further actions in response to the [Fundamental Science Review] and my vision for strengthening science in Canada in the weeks and months to come."
Other schools that have often not met their equity targets, such as the University of Calgary and Laval University, said they are still working on their inclusion plans and could not give details at this time.
David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said the positions were never meant to last forever.
"The intention of the program was to ensure that there was some rollover in these chairs, and it wasn't just the same people who were appointed and reappointed all the time," he said.
But universities will have to do many more things to improve diversity in prestigious programs, Mr. Robinson warned.
He also said the government must follow through on its threats to withhold funding if the targets are not met.
"There does need to be a stick that they're going to be able to wield," he said.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story said the most recent data on female chairs indicated 28 per cent of chairs were women. That data was from 2015 and 2016.