Dr. Mona Nemer
Chief Science Advisor of Canada
Association of Public and Land-grant Universities Annual Meeting: Strengthening International Research Collaborations
November 11, 2020
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Good afternoon, it is my pleasure to join you for the APLU’s annual meeting and for this discussion on strengthening international research collaborations.
I am a firm believer in the importance of international research collaborations. If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is the importance of science and research exchange in advancing knowledge and finding solutions.
In thinking of the theme of your annual meeting, Resilience and Equity, it strikes me that at the heart of all of these issues are people. At the heart of research collaborations are relationships. These relationships between people are nurtured over time, and become bridges to various sources of knowledge, be it in times of calm or in times of turbulence.
My colleague Dr. Panchanathan has spoken about the future of work and the need to think about how we can embrace innovative technologies for the betterment of society.
I’d like to talk to you about the future of the work force – and specifically, of the research community.
You are likely aware that the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the inequities in our research communities -- be it the students enrolled in universities and colleges across our countries right now, the early career researchers who’ve not had the chance to establish themselves just yet, or members of underrepresented groups who have disproportionally felt the negative impacts of the pandemic.
Nature recently published the results of a major international survey of 7,670 postdocs working in academia, which included questions on the impact of COVID-19 on the global postdoctoral community.
Eight out of ten postdoctoral researchers said that the pandemic had hampered their ability to conduct experiments or collect data. More than half were finding it harder to discuss their research ideas or share their work with colleagues, and most worried about the pandemic’s impact on their career prospects.
Another study, this one from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) examined how the COVID-19 pandemic had amplified challenges for students with disabilities.
And perhaps unsurprisingly, multiple studies have now shown that the share of women researchers publishing papers in medical journals this year compared to last year has dropped across all career stages, but especially for early-career women researchers.
At the same time, surveys have found that women disproportionately report having taken on the bulk of childcare during the pandemic. So this shows us that it is not just an issue for research institutions to tackle, but a broader societal challenge that requires a sustained cultural shift.
So what actions can we take in partnership? While the equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) contexts in our respective countries may differ in some ways, they also overlap, which means there are important lessons to be learned from each other’s experiences.
In Canada last year, we launched the Dimensions program, which is intended to publicly recognize research institutions seeking to increase inclusiveness to a broad range of underrepresented or disadvantaged groups – women, Indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, members of racialized groups, and members of LGBTQ2+ communities.
The Dimensions program is modeled on the U.K.’s Athena Swan program, so this is an example of a good practice that can be emulated in other countries, taking into consideration unique national contexts. The American version of this program is the SEA Change initiative and I know there are others worldwide.
Just as it is important to collaborate and practice openness in our research, it is also vital to share best practices and lessons learned from EDI initiatives.
These might include insights on:
- Inclusive return to work policies (e.g. after maternity leave)
- More equitable metrics of excellence
- Ways to evaluate impact of interventions and uphold accountability
Research funding agencies also have a role to play. In Canada, for example, our federal funding agencies have embedded EDI within their program design. EDI considerations are integrated into our policies, processes, indicators of excellence and evaluation criteria.
In closing, I strongly believe that important components of resilient and equitable societies are inclusiveness, diversity and plurality of voices and support for the next generation of knowledge seekers.
There are many opportunities for our three countries to do more on EDI issues. I would invite you to think about how we can accomplish this as you interact with members of your community, and with your international colleagues and institutional partners.
We have made some progress on this front over the years, but we need to do much more. And what better partners with whom to collaborate than our neighbours and friends.