OTTAWA--Two years ago, Canada's Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), created the University Faculty Awards (UFA) program to encourage Canadian universities to appoint promising women and Aboriginal researchers to tenure-track or tenured positions in the natural sciences and engineering (NSE). Despite--or perhaps even because of--its success, the UFA program has generated some controversy with regard to its objectives and the process by which those objectives are being approached.

Background of the Program

While women make up approximately 37% of the nation's undergraduate scientists and engineers (and over 50% of the general population), this number has so far not been matched at the doctoral level, where women make up only 23% of the population. The gap is still greater at the faculty level where women comprise only 11% of the whole. The situation is most acute in engineering and applied sciences where just 6% of the faculty are female.

Following the recommendations from both NSERC's Task Force on Women in NSE and the 1996 Workshop on the Needs of the Next Generation of Canadian University Researchers, the council established the UFA program in the fall of 1998 to address the underrepresentation of women. The program also assists in maintaining the level of university R&D effort in Canada and addresses the country's requirement for highly qualified researchers, who are needed if Canada is to compete in today's technology-based economy. The NSERC's believes that the appointment of first-class women and Aboriginal scientists will provide excellent role models for future generations of researchers. The first awards under the program were taken up in 1999.

Although the UFA program initially focused upon the underrepresentation of women, a broader consultation process was implemented regarding the inclusion of other designated groups. Research indicated that there has been a continuous increase in the enrollment of Aboriginal people in postsecondary institutions; however, the areas of study with the highest concentrations of Aboriginal students are the social sciences, education, law, and business. The disciplines with the lowest number of Aboriginal students are agriculture, biology, mathematics, and the physical sciences. In November 1999, NSERC's Committee on Scholarships and Fellowships unanimously recommended that Aboriginal people be included in the UFA program starting in the 2001-2002 competition.

Summary of Program Description

There are up to 25 awards available per year under the UFA program. The program provides awardees with a salary contribution of $40,000 per year for 3 years, renewable for 2 years, and a guaranteed research grant for the duration of the award. The appointment must be at the minimum level of assistant professor. The deadline for the submission of nominations for the next competition is November 1, 2000.

NSERC will only accept nominations made by universities. The nomination should address, in particular, the need for female or Aboriginal representation in the discipline and institution, as well as the university's support of and commitment to the candidate. The NSERC UFA Selection Committee reviews nominations for these awards with input from the relevant Grant Selection Committee (GSC) and external reviewers. The GSCs are responsible for assessing both the excellence of the individual and the merit of the research program, while the UFA Selection Committee focuses primarily on the need for female or Aboriginal representation and institutional commitment. For more details, see the complete program description.

Attitudes and Perspectives

Since its inception, the UFA program has generated some controversy with regard to its objectives and the process by which those objectives are being approached. A primary criticism has been that because only women have been eligible to apply, the successful candidates were not being selected on the basis of merit and excellence. This is clearly not the case, as all UFA candidates must first successfully compete with their peers, of both genders, in the research grant competition before they are even considered by the UFA Selection Committee for an award. NSERC is committed to maintaining the highest standards of excellence in all of its programs, including the UFA.

The program has also faced claims that the low representation of women in the physical sciences and engineering is natural. Current information on the question of relative abilities in mathematics and science is extensive and conflicting. The majority of recent results demonstrate that the mathematics abilities of girls and boys are very similar and that there are larger differences in the performances within each sex than between the two sexes. Skills are learned rather than innate and females may need more direct personal encouragement than males due to factors such as social expectations and peer influences.

Another criticism has been that the eligibility requirements of the UFA program are discriminatory to men. While men are excluded from participating in this program, it is important to bear in mind that the program was created to address the current gender imbalance and perceived barriers to women. The program also represents a very small fraction of NSERC's total budget (approximately $1,640,000 for the UFA this year out of $550,000,000 total). In addition, this year the Canada Research Chairs program will be available to both sexes on a competitive basis. It has been determined that the UFA program should be of a transient nature and the need for it will be periodically evaluated.

Thus far, there are 19 women on the faculty of Canadian universities holding UFA awards and 23 new awards were offered this year. In addition to increasing the number of promising women scientists in NSE, the UFA program has had the added benefit of the repatriation of Canadian researchers from abroad. This year, over one-third of the UFA nominees and over one half of UFA awardees were working or studying abroad at the time of nomination.

Through the UFA program, NSERC is committed to increasing the representation of both women and Aboriginal people and the program has made a difference in this direction.