Findings from CIHR Environmental Scan on Systemic Racism in Health Research and Funding Systems (2021-22)
CIHR’s Strategic Plan (2021-2031) includes a commitment to engage with members of the research community with lived experience and expertise to co-develop an anti-racism action plan that will address systemic racism in the CIHR funding system.
From November 2020 to February 2022, CIHR conducted an environmental scan to identify key issues, challenges, and barriers resulting from systemic racism in the health research funding system. The findings will help ground discussions with the community and define the objectives of CIHR’s anti-racism action plan, noting this scan is one of several sources of information.
This scan includes findings from 54 references including peer-reviewed research, commentaries, academic magazines, open letters to funding agencies and universities, and publications from funding agencies, Canadian universities, not-for-profits, and the Canadian federal government. Highlights of key findings are summarized below.
Systemic racism in academia
In academia, racism has a strong effect on the climate of institutions. At the individual level, racialized students often cite microaggressions as the primary form of racism they experience. These include subtle or dismissive gestures; harassment by security/law enforcement personnel; racial profiling; tokenism, exclusion from peer groups/networks; Eurocentric curricula; lectures framed in racist manners; unfair grading; and students receiving biased advice.
Faculty and staff often describe institutionalized racism, a form of systemic racism, as a defining feature of academic life. Institutionalized racism refers to how policies and rules reinforce ways of thinking that dehumanize people. This includes denial of tenure or promotion; biased academic evaluation metrics; less stable academic positions; underrepresentation of racialized students and faculty; a lack of scholarly autonomy; unequal service and mentoring demands; a lack of teaching release time; less appreciation for alternative ways of knowing and learning; higher turn-over of racialized faculty members; higher drop-out rates of racialized students; and racial segmentation of the academic labour market.
Systemic racism in health research funding
Existing literature from Canada and abroad illuminates that the structural inequities which exist within academic institutions, and are a function of systemic racism, also exist within health research funding systems. This literature describes three domains where these structural inequities exist: ‘who’ is funded; ‘what’ is funded; and ‘how’ decisions are made.
- Who: Structural inequities can be seen by looking at who gets funded. CIHR data suggests that the proportion of funded racialized researchers may have increased since 2018; however, disaggregated applicant self-identification data is not yet available. U.S. and UK data indicate that funding success varies significantly between and within racialized groups, with Black researchers consistently representing the lowest proportion of funded health researchers.
- Additional barriers include: a lack of educational pipeline funding and training towards long-term goals and career advancement (i.e., racialized researchers receive no/few supplements, awards, and health sciences training from high school onwards); a lack of mentorship and experience-based support for racialized students and early career researchers; a lack of awareness about funding opportunities and exposure to proposal development among racialized students; inadequate funding for professional students; and “health equity tourism”, whereby researchers are pivoting to health equity research, diverting funding from racialized researchers with more relevant scientific expertise and experience.
- What: Structural inequities can be seen by looking at what types of research are being funded. CIHR data shows that there is more funding for biomedical research than for ‘wider impact’ health systems, social, cultural, environmental, and population research. An influential U.S. study found that Black American applicants are more likely to choose innovative research areas, including human subject research and research on health inequities, suggesting that the choice of topic becomes a disadvantage as such innovative approaches are dismissed or less supported by those conducting peer review. Other Canadian and American research reveals that racial-ethnic inequities in and amongst Asian communities are under researched or obscured in existing research.
- Additional barriers include: increased competition for limited research funding; peer review committees lacking multidisciplinary expertise, including knowledge of methods to examine racism and health equity concepts; systematic underfunding of research on racism as a determinant of health; and the mischaracterization of race as a biological variable.
- How: Structural inequities also exist within health funders themselves. At an individual level, racial disparities exist within workforces, which are predominantly White at senior levels. Racialized employees also cite racial microaggressions as having a negative impact on their work experience, and a lack of evidence-informed anti-racism training. Institutional level barriers include: racism, discrimination, and bias in policies, processes, and programs; a lack of evidence-informed anti-racism interventions; a lack of decision-making transparency and accountability; and limited diversity of ways of knowing and learning within workforces, hindering the ability to adequately address racism.
- The overall impact of systemic racism in the Canadian health funding system has caused gaps in knowledge that is needed to address and improve population health and strengthen health care systems. Moreover, racial diversity has been shown to improve scientific research outputs.
As a result of the environmental scan, CIHR has highlighted the following key issues that its action plan will specifically aim to address.
- Black and other researchers marginalized by racism face additional barriers when progressing in their academic studies and careers because of systemic racism, and as a result, their participation in the research ecosystem is not equitable.
- The lack of participation of Black and other communities marginalized by racism in setting their own health research priorities contributes to health inequities in Canada.
- Few knowledge hubs/networks exist within Canada to support capacity development and sustainability of the pipeline for Black and other researchers marginalized by racism, as well as generally for researchers that study racism as a determinant of health.
- The lack of scholarship in the study of racism as a determinant of health allows systemic racism to continue to underpin health inequities in Canada.
- Peer review processes uphold systemic racism in part because the traditional concept of research excellence expresses narrow notion for what constitutes scholarly health research.
- CIHR’s funding policies, programs, and processes have led to inequitable access to funding and participation in health research, but no systematic analyses have been done to understand how systemic racism is embedded.
- CIHR decision-makers, including corporate and Institute staff, as well as peer reviewers, do not represent the diversity of the Canadian population, which contributes to bias within the system and a lack of representation.
Glossary of Terms
Anti-racism: The active process of identifying and challenging racism, by changing systems, organizational structures, policies and practices, and attitudes, to redistribute power in an equitable manner (Source: Glossary of Terms: Race, Equity and Social Justice).
Disaggregated Data: Disaggregating data means breaking down information into smaller subpopulations. For instance, breaking data down into racial/ethnic categories (Source: Glossary of Terms: Race, Equity and Social Justice).
Eurocentric Curricula: Refers to the dominance of European (liberal universalist) ways of knowing in teaching, learning, and understanding.
Inequities: Inequities refer to social group differences that are unjust and avoidable.
Lack of scholarly autonomy: Refers to restrictions on academics’ abilities to determine or shape their own research agendas.
Lack of teaching release time: Refers to limited teaching release, which normally provides academics with the opportunity to focus on their research responsibilities.
Microaggressions: Everyday insults, indignities, and demeaning messages sent to historically marginalized groups by well-intentioned members of the majority group who are unaware of the hidden messages being sent (Source: Glossary of Terms: Race, Equity and Social Justice).
Racial segmentation in the academic labor market: Refers to the over and underrepresentation of specific racial groups in particular disciplines and faculties.
Tokenism: Traditionally, the token work situation is defined as a skewed group with a large number of one type and one or two of another type, wherein racialized people, who are a numerical minority, experience performance pressures and social psychological troubles. Newer research, however, indicates that their experiences do not only have negative connotations.
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