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What Happened to the Dimensions Program?

Karine Coen-Sanchez is a PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa, and was recognized as E4D’s Evidence Advocate for May 2024.

In 2005, the Athena SWAN Charter was established in the United Kingdom. Over time, it has become a globally recognised framework used to advance gender equality within higher education and research, and has inspired adaptations across the world. In Canada, consultations were carried out to adapt the framework for the Canadian context, and resulted in the launch of the Dimensions program, by the Tri-Agency, in 2018.

A mere five years later, funding for the pilot Dimensions program was, unexpectedly, not renewed, leading to an end in its associated funding on March 31, 2023. What happened?

In this guest blog post, co-authored by Karine Coen-Sanchez and Evidence for Democracy, we explore some of the remaining questions around the Dimensions program.

What was the Dimensions program?

Dimensions was an initiative as part of the Tri-Agency EDI Action Plan. It was jointly administered by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) — all under the leadership of the Canada Research Coordinating Committee.

Dimensions aimed to address barriers and discrimination faced by equity-deserving groups, including but not limited to, women, Indigenous Peoples, and people with disabilities, at postsecondary institutions (including CEGEPs, colleges, polytechnics and universities). Ultimately, Dimensions aimed to drive “deeper cultural change within the research ecosystem by identifying and eliminating obstacles and inequities.”

The program involved two components:

  • A charter, which could be endorsed by post-secondary institutions at any point. The charter was endorsed by 143 organizations across Canada, including post-secondary institutions, government agencies, and national organizations.
  • A recognition program, which recruited a pilot cohort of 17 post-secondary institutions (out of 40 applications) for the opportunity to be “recognized for their efforts and progress made to advance EDI in the research ecosystem.” Ultimately, 10 participating institutions applied for and received Dimensions recognition in 2023.

What happened to Dimensions?

There were signs that the future of the Dimensions program was uncertain as early as 2022. 

On 3rd January 2022, a University Affairs article noted that “the pandemic set deadlines back slightly”, and that “the pilot project will end March 31, 2023 (although stakeholders are hopeful it will be renewed), and the results will be assessed by institutions as well as experts.”

And yet, Dimensions quietly wrapped up, with few aware of what happened. A later University Affairs article, from February 2024, notes that: 

“…the program was quietly wrapped up without informing participating institutions…Malinda Smith, vice-provost, EDI at the University of Calgary, was also holding out hope for the Dimensions program. “To my knowledge, we didn’t receive any letter from NSERC. I kept hoping that the negotiations were underway and we would know on time,” she said.

…While it’s not unheard of for a funding program or pilot project not to be renewed, Dr. Smith pointed out that “it’s usually based on an assessment.” Unfortunately, in this case, funding was cut off before the assessment was conducted. In its statement, NSERC said it will release its review, in conjunction with its internal evaluation division, ‘in early 2024.’” 

(Note: the aforementioned NSERC review has not been released yet.)

On October 23, 2023, the Honourable Kirsty Duncan (Liberal), the MP for Etobicoke North, and formerly the Minister of Science and Sport (2018-19), asked questions about the Dimensions program. In response, in December 2023, the Government of Canada stated that “the cost to administer the pilot program was $294,000 in 2018–19, $909,525 in 2019–20, and $806,325 annually in 2020–21, 2021–22 and 2022–23.”

A program evaluation was conducted by Cathexis Consulting, in collaboration with the NSERC Evaluation Division. The evaluation has not been released, but the above Government response noted that:

  • “Dimensions raised the profile of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) within participating post- secondary institutions and helped to consolidate EDI-related activities.”
  • “It takes time for institutional culture shifts, but EDI-related changes have occurred within participating institutions.
    • Dimensions raised the profile of EDI across institutions
    • Institutions created dedicated EDI positions, offices, and committees
    • Institutions changed hiring practices
    • Dimensions supported the increased use of EDI data to make informed decisions
    • Dimensions created an informal community of practice
    • Some institutions improved physical spaces.”
  • “The institutional representatives whose institutions applied for recognition spoke about the value of a Dimensions recognition and said that it:
    • Validates institutional commitment to EDI principles
    • Provides accountability for institutions’ EDI efforts
    • Provides an opportunity to recognize the institution’s EDI efforts
    • Motivates institutions and reinforces their commitment to work towards the next stage of recognition
    • It may enhance institutions’ reputations.”

The Government response demonstrates that Dimensions helped to move the needle on progress related to equity, diversity and inclusion in the Canadian research ecosystem. Beyond this response, stakeholders have noted that Dimensions helped to foster a “community of practice”, and was a “lever that motivated us to act.” Notably, the Canada Research Coordinating Committee’s website continues to list Dimensions as one of their three key initiatives.

While the Government response shed light on the impact of Dimensions, there are still many unanswered questions. For example, how was such a high-performing program cancelled, without any formal explanation or due notice to the broader research ecosystem? Were the Tri-Agencies consulted on this decision?

How do we move forward from here?

The Dimensions cancellation sends a larger message: that addressing social inequalities has an expiration date. This setback is a blow to crucial efforts to address systemic barriers and advance equity and inclusion in the Canadian research community.

So, what can we do?

Firstly, we must continue to ask questions and seek clarity about what happened to the Dimensions program. But we must pair this with action: specifically, to advocate for the reinstatement of the Dimensions program, whether as a part of the Government or hosted externally, as a cost-effective way of securing a sustainable research and innovation ecosystem that delivers for all Canadians. 

Let’s bring Dimensions back — and reverse this step which threatens to erode our collective commitment to fostering diverse perspectives and representation in scientific and scholarly endeavors in Canada.

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