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The excellence dilemma

Are equity, diversity and inclusion criteria and sustainable development goals compatible with academia’s obsession with excellence?


Excellence is no longer unanimously lauded in the academic community. Its shifting meaning is at the heart of the debate on whether equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) and sustainable development goals (SDGs) should be used as criteria in public research funding.

The term “excellence” is bandied about in higher education as a qualifier for institutions, research teams, scientific papers, faculty and students. Yet there is no clear definition of what it actually means in academia, as a number of articles and books have shown.

According to Yves Gingras, a science historian at Université du Québec à Montréal, “Excellence is a tautology. Whatever we declare to be excellent is excellent. It can’t really be measured.”

This explains why the essence of what excellence means has changed over time. Lisette Jong, an anthropology researcher at the University of Amsterdam, says that excellence became a metric in academia in 1910, when the American psychologist James McKeen Cattell published the first university ranking. By the 1950s, excellence was expected to drive productivity and economic growth. “It was [in the 1980s] that the term started to be more common in research in Quebec and the rest of Canada,” says Dr. Gingras. The 1990s and 2000s saw the rise of the knowledge economy and the pursuit of excellence propelled many countries to innovate in order to take a leading role in the new economic model. Since then, excellence has come to dominate science policy as well as higher education and research funding.

However, the concept of excellence has had its share of critics over the years. In a 2017 Nature article, five researchers, including University of Lethbridge professor Daniel Paul O’Donnell, criticized what they call the “fetishisation” of excellence.

In their view, excellence has no intrinsic meaning; rather it functions as a rhetorical device that is linked to narratives of resource scarcity. They argue this creates a hypercompetitive environment, a concentration of resources and a certain conservatism (as researchers try to conform to the standards of this “excellence”). It’s a dynamic that the authors say runs counter to the very spirit of freedom of research.

Redefining excellence for research funding

Nevertheless, excellence won’t be abandoned as a metric anytime soon. It serves a real purpose in the research system, and particularly in grant funding. “We have developed a set of quantitative and qualitative tools to measure excellence, despite the admitted difficulty of defining it,” points out Ted Hewitt, president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and chair of the Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) program. These are the criteria we use to evaluate applications.”

In 2020 and 2021, Ms. Jong led a research project on excellence with eight Canadian and international granting agencies, including Michael Smith Health Research BC and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. She understands where Dr. Hewitt is coming from. “It’s easy to criticize the concept of excellence, but much harder to get rid of it because it serves a number of purposes,” she says. “We need to analyze how granting agencies use it to understand their dilemmas and see what changes we can make.”

Ms. Jong points out that excellence is no longer taken as a given in these agencies: it’s actually more of a concern. “They try to mitigate the problems caused by applying excellence criteria by adjusting the processes, expanding them or reinventing them altogether,” she says.

Adjusting processes usually involves trying to lessen the emphasis on quantitative metrics for the publications of those applying for grants. “It is becoming more common for the Fonds de recherche du Québec (FRQ) to ask applicants to submit only their three or four best publications,” explains Quebec’s chief scientist, Rémi Quirion. “Peers read them and make their own assessment.”

Expanding processes means redefining the concept of excellence and even bringing in non-academic stakeholders to evaluate research. Although few and far between, some funds are revolutionizing their approach completely. For example, using a lottery to select applications that already meet a particular standard.

Canada Research Chairs equity targets for December 2029 and representation in September 2022


Representation in March 2023 Target for December 2029
Women and gender minorities 45.8% 50.9%
Racialized people 26.1% 22.0%
Persons with disabilities 6.3% 7.5%
Indigenous Peoples 3.9% 4.9%


Judicial pressure

Canada’s federal and provincial funding programs have made a lot of changes in recent years, including introducing EDI criteria in the allocation of public funds.

This trend stems in part from an agreement reached by the federal government in 2006. Three years earlier, eight women led a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, alleging the Canada Research Chairs program (CRC) disproportionately benefited white men.

At the time, the federal government agreed to set equity targets for four designated groups: women, persons with disabilities, Indigenous Peoples and racialized minorities. However, institutions were rarely able to meet those goals. In 2017, the CRC program implemented its Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, requiring institutions to publicly disclose how they planned to meet the targets and challenging them to do so within a year.

The Tri-agency Institutional Programs Secretariat (TIPS), which represents the three federal granting agencies, announced more ambitious targets for the four designated groups in 2019. At the same time, it warned that institutions that failed to meet their targets would lose some of their funding.

“Some requirements were in response to complaint settlements, but the changes also stem from growing awareness in the research ecosystem that research excellence cannot exist without EDI,” says Valérie Laflamme, associate vice-president of TIPS. “A research funding program that reproduces systemic barriers and biases cannot be considered excellent.”

Inclusive excellence leads to divisiveness

With this increased recognition in mind, granting agencies and many universities are now advocating for “inclusive excellence.” Still the notion remains a major point of contention among those who oppose the most recent EDI measures taken by federal and provincial granting agencies.

Last January, Quebec’s Minister of Higher Education, Pascale Déry, wrote a blunt letter to the province’s universities in response to CRC job postings that explicitly excluded white men. She wrote that the EDI requirements of the CRC programs set by the federal government actually restrict certain rights and undermine the primacy of the concepts of merit and excellence.

“A research funding program that reproduces systemic barriers and biases cannot be considered excellent.”

Dr. Gingras agrees that EDI and excellence do not automatically go hand in hand. According to him, “People seem to confuse the principle of scientific excellence, which by its very nature is a way to decide among candidates and projects and therefore to exclude, with social justice issues like EDI and the SDGs, which are laudable but can’t be artificially applied to the concept of excellence.”

Others worry about the impact on the freedom of research. “Introducing EDI or SDG criteria is tantamount to imposing an ideological framework that reduces the diversity of perspectives, while the stated goal is, on the contrary, to ensure greater diversity,” says Arnaud Bernadet, a professor in the department of French literature, translation and creation at McGill University. He believes that steering basic research, even for noble reasons, limits the freedom of that research.

Accelerating change

These types of protests are less about the willingness to make Canada’s research system more diverse than about some of the means used to get there. Promoting diversity by excluding white men from multiple CRC positions across the country, for example, sparked controversy. A number of open letters and newspaper opinion articles have been highly critical, such as one published by Jamie Sarkonak in the National Post in April 2022. A complaint has even been led with the Quebec and Canadian human rights commissions against Université Laval and the CRC program.

But Philippe-Edwin Bélanger, director of graduate and postdoctoral services at the Institut national de la recherche scientique and president of the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies, believes that “introducing the obligation to meet specific EDI targets into a rather stagnant system was justified to accelerate a cultural change in the allocation of research funds in Canada. We’ve been talking about it for a long time, but there hasn’t been much movement at the institutions.”

He is squarely in the inclusive excellence camp. “A bit like multidisciplinarity, EDI brings more diverse perspectives to research, which drives excellence. So it’s a mistake to put EDI and excellence in opposition.”

His view echoes Dr. Hewitt’s. “Imagine how much efficiency, perspective and creativity the research system loses when underrepresented groups don’t participate,” he says. “It’s imperative that we diversify our community of researchers to improve research and society as a whole.”

“A bit like multidisciplinarity, EDI brings more diverse perspectives to research, which drives excellence. So it’s a mistake to put EDI and excellence in opposition.”

In her work on the concept of excellence in grant funding, Ms. Jong has noticed a recurring argument: that EDI improves research performance. “This is central to the concept of inclusive excellence. The result is that the main goal of advocating EDI is no longer the well-being of researchers, but improving the research performance of a university or a country,” she says.

The concept of inclusive excellence thus becomes entangled in the dynamics of hypercompetition and meritocracy that dominate resource allocation. However, this approach has led to a number of problems, including perpetuating homogeneity and the vicious circle whereby people who have benefited from the system are more likely to benefit from it again.

One granting agency backpedals

Inclusive excellence has also become an issue in the funding of young researchers. In Quebec, the FRQ introduced a new criterion for its 2022-2023 competition: Applicants had to take into account the SDGs (including EDI) and demonstrate a capacity for social engagement. In response, more than 900 professors signed a letter of protest and sent it to chief scientist Dr. Quirion.

While acknowledging the FRQ’s right to create targeted scholarship programs to improve access for marginalized groups of students, the academics strongly rejected the idea of using general programs to impose what they described as a “worldview.” They also had concerns that socioeconomic inequalities were being ignored, which could prevent some students from engaging in volunteer collective action pertaining to the SDGs to the same extent as others.

The FRQ ended up backtracking. “In hindsight, I think they were probably right, and it wasn’t a good idea to give a quantitative score to these criteria when evaluating grant applications,” Dr. Quirion admits. “In the coming years, we will work to raise awareness of the SDGs and EDI among future researchers and students, but without including them as criteria in the evaluation of grant applications.”

The debate over the FRQ criteria led the Réseau interuniversitaire québécois pour l’équité, la diversité et l’inclusion (RIQEDI), originally a community of practice, to take a public stance and attempt to defend the original changes made by the FRQ.

“Sometimes there are no links between a subject or research area and EDI or the SDGs, but it’s important to develop the reflex to consider them,” says Bibiana Pulido, co-founder and executive director of RIQEDI. It’s a position rejected by many researchers, who wonder why someone working on exoplanets or medieval literature, for example, should have to demonstrate their contribution to EDI or the SDGs.

Ms. Pulido also understands that people resent the imposition of quotas or coercive measures, but believes that stems from a fear of losing certain benefits or privileges. “The research community is still very homogeneous, so we have to find a way to include marginalized groups,” she says. “I think there are misconceptions, particularly about the risk that representativeness will take precedence over excellence, when in fact inclusive excellence takes candidates’ expertise into account.”

That’s not to say that representativeness isn’t also important. “When I was a student, I never met a professor who was blind, as I knew I would be,” says Erin Maloney, who holds the Canada Research Chair in academic achievement and well-being at the University of Ottawa. “I didn’t have many role models to show me how far I could go [in academia].”

She believes her current position is having an impact on her students. “Students are much more open to talking about their own disabilities and see that it won’t necessarily hold them back,” she says. “When they look at professors and university researchers, it’s important for everyone to be able to recognize themselves.”

Jean-François Venne
Jean-François Venne is a Montreal-based journalist specializing in education, research, innovation and business.
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  1. Felix Baerlocher / September 1, 2023 at 06:51

    To me, the more relevant question is:
    Is excellence compatible with academia’s obsession with equity, diversity and inclusion criteria and sustainable development goals?

  2. S.D. Chakrabarti / September 1, 2023 at 09:31

    Indigenous and Racialized (aka visible minority) people make up 5% and 26.5% of the Canadian population, respectively. Wonder why the targets were lowered for the latter (but who seem to be exceeding them).