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The Black Hole

Advice on Athena SWAN in Canada: universities need to focus on practical changes

Contrary to current thinking in Canadian circles, David Kent says it is absolutely essential to tie the program to funding.


The last two months have featured quite a lot of chat about the planned “Made in Canada” version of the U.K.’s Athena SWAN initiative.  University Affairs has already detailed the nuts and bolts in an excellent article from Anqi Shen where some imperfections were also highlighted including the costs (financial and time) of implementing and monitoring effective programming. As a U.K.-based researcher since 2009, I’ve had nearly a decade to watch the Athena SWAN program as an early career researcher (my postdoc and my first few years as a group leader) – there have been serious growing pains and Canada now has the luxury of avoiding some of the same traps. I hope this article and its perspective will help.

Athena SWAN is a good thing

Make no mistake when reading this article – I am strongly in favour of pushing this agenda at Canadian universities. Progress in these areas is glacial and it is fantastic that the government and universities have recognized the need to make systemic change. Similarly it makes sense to create a Canadian version that suits the needs of the Canadian research community.

Contrary to current thinking in Canadian circles though, I think it is absolutely essential to tie the program to funding. If we want the big universities to listen, then money needs to be involved. We simply cannot rely on common sense or altruism when the increasingly corporately-run research operations are involved. Here in the U.K., the fat-cat universities did virtually nothing for Athena SWAN until Dame Sally Davies declared in 2011 that the U.K. National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) would only give money to medical schools for biomedical research centre funding if the institution held an Athena SWAN Silver Award. As a postdoc in 2011, I’d not heard anything about Athena SWAN, but all of a sudden, it was everywhere – the big schools were listening because millions were on the line.

Avoid “feel good” programmes

One of the problems with rolling out a national mandate is that you have to define the individual components of it. A box ticking exercise ensues – do you have nursery places? Do all interview panels have both men and women on them? Are your seminars during core working hours? The list goes on. These ideas all sound great in a boardroom but they are almost all subject to abuse. I am part of a “mentoring” program in Cambridge which started with a one hour introduction session in 2016 and has had absolutely zero follow-up since. Have they trained me to be a mentor? Do they care how many hours I spend mentoring people or broadly what we discuss? Do those being mentored actually benefit? No idea… because the check box says “mentoring program” and we’ve got one.

For cultural change to occur, people need to see the potential value of that change. In many cases, people need to be willing to relinquish (or at least share) power to another group of people. This latter point is the biggest issue and has plagued far more powerless people throughout history than disenfranchised academics. Before rolling out Athena SWAN, Canadian policymakers would be wise to remember how much furor was created when CIHR pitched the redistribution of its funding away from “mega-labs”, and how swiftly the powerful researchers reacted to protect their funding.

Empower the ones who care

Something that has become commonplace in U.K. universities is to have academic “champions” to help facilitate the desired change. This is a great idea in principle and could give exposure to important issues in higher circles. It is now also common to see “equality and diversity” and “public engagement” as permanent fixtures  on meeting minutes for the most senior circles. Senior professors are champions, surely change will follow. Again, however, my experience here in Cambridge has been quite disappointing. Senior figures are indeed named “champion”, but they have been tapped on the shoulder to do so and show very little enthusiasm for changing the system that has crowned them. If the mantle is passed onto a more junior colleague (as in my own case for public engagement), it comes with virtually no ability to influence the senior circles where decisions are made.  So, do you want a powerless junior researcher or an uninterested senior one as your champion?  Neither inspires particular confidence, so surely the only solution is to find those motivated to change things and give them the power to do so.

At the end of the day, universities need to focus on practical changes that actually make a difference in the career trajectory of people.  It is not sufficient to give a few thousand dollars to allow people a few days of babysitting services or conference travel. Dream bigger – you bring in a million dollar grant, here’s completely free daycare for your kids. There are a huge host of great ideas and examples out there for how to achieve real change for young researchers, but the challenge is to put meat on the bones and not to settle for a checked box on a series of feel good programs. Give the power and resources to young researchers who have had their close friends pushed out of the academy unfairly; listen to those who are leaving about their reasoning, and do not hire administrators or appoint academics to game the system so your university can meet the criteria by spending as little as possible.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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