BBCS Opposes NSERC's Exclusionary Faculty Awards

September 2000

Letter of Dr. Lorraine Allan, President of the Canadian Society for Brain, Behaviour, and Cognitive Science, to Dr. Thomas Brzustowski, President of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and the reply.

August 9, 2000

Dear Dr. Brzustowski:

I am writing on behalf of the Canadian Society for Brain, Behaviour, and Cognitive Science. We are a society with members throughout Canada, mainly academic researchers in the behavioural and cognitive neurosciences.

Our society recently discussed and passed a motion to notify NSERC that we are opposed to the exclusionary manner in which NSERC's University Faculty Awards are allotted. Until this year, when aboriginals were added, the awards were available exclusively to women.

The discussion that preceded voting on this motion identified a number of issues:

  1. that excellence should be the sole criterion for granting these important awards, which provide appointments and startup research funds for the awardee. At present, even outstanding young men in the sciences may not apply, and it must therefore follow that some better-qualified men are being overlooked under the present system. As a Canadian scientific society, we are concerned at the potential loss of young scientists, either to industry, or to other countries.
  2. that NSERC has misinterpreted the lower numbers of women in the physical sciences and engineering as being due to some kind of negative discrimination. This need not be the case, and in fact the evidence suggests that it is a choice women make themselves.
  3. that the oft-repeated importance of same-sex role models has yet to be demonstrated. We would argue that what evidence we have suggests that the best role model is a good scientist, regardless of his or her sex or race.
  4. many members simply felt this was an unfair practice, in that it undermined the merit principle, and in some instances gave rise to acrimonious relations between the sexes. NSERC administrative officers may be under the impression that there is broad acceptance of the current system for awarding UFAs. Our purpose is to inform you that a substantial scientific society in this country is opposed to this mandate. We believe that NSERC’s guiding principle should be the support of research excellence, based on objective evaluation.

The Canadian Society for Brain, Behaviour, and Cognitive Science urges NSERC to return to an open competition for these awards, as they were in the 1980's. There is no evidence that women were disadvantaged during that period.

Lorraine Allan

September 6, 2000

Dear Dr. Allan:

Thank you for your letter of August 9, in which you identify a number of issues recently discussed and voted on by the Canadian Society for Brain, Behavior, and Cognitive Science. I welcome your considered comments and perspective. Since its inception in 1999, the University Faculty Awards Program has generated some controversy in the scientific community. Council has carefully considered these disparate views and feels the benefits of this initiative are great enough to merit its continuation.

As regards the issue of excellence, I must emphasize here that, as in all of NSERC’s programs, the excellence of the candidate s the primary selection criterion in the UFA program. NSERC’s selection committees must adhere to the highest standards of quality and excellence in selecting the individuals to whom the awards are offered. All UFA nominees are assessed against their peers (of both genders) when NSERC’s Grant Selection Committees (GSCs) evaluate their research proposal and excellence. If a GSC does not believe that a UFA nominee merits a research grant, in competition with all other applicants with a similar career profile, then this nomination will not be approved.

Although special programs, by their very nature, affect non-members of the target groups, the UFA program, nevertheless, only represents a very small fraction of NSERC’s total budget (approximately $1.640 million for the UFA program this year out of a total budget of $550 million, or 0.3%). As competition for the remainder of the budget is open to both sexes, we do not think this is unreasonable.

In recent years, there has been tremendous growth in the number of female undergraduates in the natural sciences and engineering. Young women now make up 37 percent of the nation’s undergraduate scientists and engineers. But this growth has so far not been matched at the doctoral level where women are only 23 percent of the population and among faculty members the gap is still greater - only 11 percent are women. This situation is most acute in engineering and applied sciences where just 6 percent of the faculty are female. It may be that trends in undergraduate enrolments will eventually translate into changes at the faculty level, but progress is slow. At the current rate it would take almost a century for female faculty to reach parity with male faculty. NSERC believes Canada should do what it can now to encourage these talented young people to continue in their chosen fields. And, while there may be some debate over the value of same-sex role models, it is Council’s strong belief that the appointment of first-class women scientists and engineers will provide excellent role models for future generations of students of both genders.

Again, I wish to underline that excellence is of primary importance in the evaluation process for the UFA program. I would also like to point out that the objectives of the UFA program as well as the number of awards allocated are significantly different from those of the URF program of the 1980s.

Finally, it should be noted that Council has clearly stated that this program is temporary in nature and that NSERC will periodically monitor the need for its continued existence.

I hope that this clarifies NSERC’s position, and again, thank you for your input.

Thomas Brzustowski