ARCHIVED - 2. Official language minority community researchers: Perceived barriers

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This section examines the current situation and major barriers perceived by researchers when applying for federal research grants.

2.1 Issues studied

The major themes addressed during interviews with the researchers are as follows.

  • Access to research funding: This involves the degree to which researchers and universities benefit from current research funding programs. While relevant information in this regard was also obtained from the federal research funding agencies, the survey of researchers and in-person interviews examined the extent to which they are aware of available funding sources, have the means to apply for them and have been successful in obtaining them.

  • Ability of federal research funding agencies to serve official language minority communities (OLMCs) in both official languages: A key component of this study is the extent to which federal research funding agencies respond to the needs of OLMCs and are able to evaluate the projects submitted in their language. Success would be indicated by such measures as the language skill levels of peer review committees, the ability of agency staff to reach out to institutions and researchers in both official languages, and the assurance that applying for financial support in either official language would not diminish the chance of success.

  • Programs targeted at OLMCs: The survey of researchers and in-person interviews also examined the extent to which current programs are aimed at OLMCs or support research on linguistic duality in OLMC settings.

  • Awareness in OLMCs of available research funding: The survey given to researchers working in OLMC settings or on official languages issues also questioned their awareness of available research funding programs.

2.2 Knowledge and experience

While the sample of 40 researchers interviewed does not statistically represent the entire population of professors working in every OLMC in Canada, an analysis of their responses to the questionnaire and the supplementary material they submitted nevertheless resulted in  numerous findings that are applicable to the experiences of many academics in official language minority institutions or working on official languages issues.

Participating researchers were very experienced and knowledgeable, most having earned the academic rank of full or associate professor. As a further indicator in this regard, all but one had at one time applied for funding from at least one federal agency, while about one-third had received two or more grants. Although 10% of the researchers interviewed had never received funding, 20% are currently funded from a federal government source and another 60% have obtained funding in the past five years.

Although Quebec Anglophone researchers from McGill, Concordia and Bishop’s universities (all of whom had received funds from at least one federal government source over the past five years) were more likely than their Francophone minority colleagues elsewhere in Canada to have received support for their research, both groups are highly aware of what the grant application process entails. Therefore, the barriers that they describe should not be dismissed as exaggerated or misrepresentative.

2.3 Barriers as perceived by researchers

Based on the extensive feedback provided by the researchers who were interviewed, the following major barriers to success in obtaining a grant or contract from a federal government source were identified.

2.3.1 Awareness of the available funding

Apart from Canadian Heritage and the three granting councils, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), federal government sources of research funding (see Table 2) are comparatively unknown to researchers in OLMCs. If official language minority researchers are unaware of the availability of funds from other sources, these programs are as inaccessible as if they did not exist.

Most researchers who were interviewed identified SSHRC as their best-known source of funding. Among researchers who had obtained money from a federal government institution for current or past research proposals, SSHRC was the most commonly identified source of  funding. This is not surprising, given the researchers who were interviewed mainly worked in the humanities and social sciences.

About half of the researchers also named CIHR as a federal government source of research support (although it was sometimes identified by its former name, the Medical Research Council), followed by NSERC and Canadian Heritage.

Given the culture in which humanities and social sciences researchers operate, they are less likely to apply to research councils unrelated to their area of specialization. It is therefore not surprising that these researchers could only identify a few other federal government institutions that fund research. At least 30% of the participants were unaware of national sources of funding other than SSHRC, CIHR, NSERC or Canadian Heritage. Table 3 shows this limited awareness and provides a summary of the total number of sources identified by the researchers.

Table 3 – Federal government funding sources identified by researchers (N=40)

No. of Sources





Less than 3 



3 to 4 



5 to 6 



7 to 8 



More than 8



Generally reflecting the greater information resources available in larger institutions, Anglophone researchers were better informed on this subject, with most being able to name five or more potential sources of federal government research support. Alternative sources of research funding that were identified included provincial government, non-government and even private sector agencies.

In conclusion, official language minority researchers appear to have a limited awareness of the vast range of federal government sources of research funding. The nature and area of the research conducted by most Francophones in minority situations reflects a dependence on grants from SSHRC and Canadian Heritage. In fact, almost 80% have never applied anywhere else. Together with CIHR and NSERC, they account for over 90% of the overall application experience of the researchers interviewed.

2.3.2 Language of publication

Researchers who work and want to publish in French see the predominance of publishing opportunities in English as a disadvantage. This is especially true in natural science disciplines, where English prevails as the language of choice for those who wish to be read and cited worldwide. As can be expected, this situation does not apply to Anglophone official language minority researchers in Quebec who publish in English, the predominant language in North America and most scientific journals. This corroborates the responses of natural sciences and engineering researchers, who indicated that they experienced greater success in applying for grants when their proposals were submitted in English.

2.3.3 Language skills of peer review committees

The scientific community depends strongly on the peer review process, not only for grant applications but also for articles submitted for publication. The scientific community has a vested interest in ensuring the integrity and quality of the peer review process. Peer review is the international standard for assessing scientific excellence and it is generally perceived as the best system available for this purpose. However, the dependency on English-speaking evaluators to assess proposals submitted in French was also viewed as an important barrier by researchers who want to work in French.

Half of the French-speaking researchers experienced problems in the federal government grant application process and questioned the linguistic ability of evaluators reviewing proposals in their second language. Documented experiences of refusals that clearly misunderstood the intent of proposals written in French cast serious doubts on the language skills of reviewers whose first language is English. This limitation was confirmed by those who have served as evaluators and as members of peer review committees.

In addition to questioning the self-assessed functional bilingualism of peer committees, researchers also mentioned obstacles related to the predominant number of committee members from large university settings, regardless of language. This problem was mostly  signalled by researchers from small Francophone universities in minority settings. They resent the lack of sensitivity regarding their particular situation and the additional barriers they face, which they feel are poorly understood by peers from large university settings. Comments in this regard ranged from suspicions about the effectiveness of review committees composed entirely of members from large universities to claims of outright bias.

This criticism should not be misunderstood. None of the researchers interviewed oppose the peer review process that the granting councils employ to evaluate funding proposals. It is quite the opposite. Both the competitive nature and the prestige associated with an award from one of the federal research funding agencies were repeatedly acknowledged as positive aspects of the allocation process. Minority official language researchers would not support watered-down procedures distributing funds to research projects that are of questionable quality or incapable of meeting competitive standards. Nevertheless, the researchers that were interviewed feel the system has its limitations, especially for researchers from small institutions in minority settings. They argue that the committees favour certain types and areas of research and researchers who work in English are at an advantage. Setting aside disciplinary biases, which are discussed later, complaints expressed by Francophone minority researchers included:

  • The absence on many committees of reviewers from official language minority academic communities outside Quebec;

  • The untested competency of self-identified bilingualism among peer review committee members;

  • Unilingual Anglophones adjudicating applications submitted in French; and

  • The meagre explanatory comments written in French, and sometimes even written in English, that accompany refusals (notably when proposals have been submitted for external review in English by Francophone researchers who try to work in their second language).

In addition to raising the very serious question of competence in the reading and comprehension of information written in one’s second language, Francophone researchers in OLMCs also expressed doubt about the ability of their “passively bilingual” peers to  appreciate the corresponding cultural nuances, values and sensitivities associated with a minority situation, which transcend a simple ability to communicate. Whether from Quebec or elsewhere in Canada, Francophone researchers attributed the frequency of rejections to the difficulty of obtaining competent expert reviewers who are fluent in the language of their proposals—especially in highly specialized fields.

No analogous comments were received from Anglophone researchers in Quebec.

2.3.4 Lack of priority given to official languages issues

The scope of this study does not include determining what would constitute sufficient support of social sciences and humanities research in order to permit the funding of all good quality research proposals dealing with official languages issues. SSHRC does, of course, fund many proposals deemed to be of high quality and accords them an appropriate priority. Nevertheless, all researchers, English and French, from large and small universities in Quebec or elsewhere in Canada and working on projects related to linguistic duality all share a common perception: over many years, funding sources have consistently accorded a very low priority to research subjects related to linguistic duality. As a result, peer review committees and external evaluators have been reluctant to recognize the importance of such proposals when ranking them with other priorities in the various related disciplines. Furthermore, Francophone researchers working on OLMC issues shared the perception that Quebec Francophone researchers, and Anglophone researchers in general, do not view the type of research that they conduct in a favourable light.

As noted, all researchers whose scholarly interests deal with official languages issues complained of the long delay—still evident in certain federal research funding agencies and their peer review committees—in acknowledging the relevance of their research. Indeed, evidence submitted from actual evaluations clearly documents how certain pertinent proposals were dismissed for being of supposedly limited interest to Canadian national priorities, regardless of the long-standing preoccupation with official languages issues in this country. (See section 3.5.2 for a discussion of research priority-setting.)

Unfortunately, while a few researchers mentioned positive strategic initiatives related to linguistic duality issues (such as SSHRC and CIHR), these are comparatively recent and were unknown to the majority of the researchers interviewed.

A number of participants had had their proposals rejected because sociolinguistic, socio-cultural, linguistic, bilingual policy, religious and other subjects of concern to OLMCs were considered of little relevance. In some cases, the evidence shows an obvious lack of interest in minority French-language issues outside Quebec by Francophone majority-language reviewers. In other cases, submissions relevant to both Anglophone and Francophone OLMCs were dismissed for failing to consider all Canadian ethnic minorities.

No less frustrating to some researchers who were interviewed is SSHRC’s practice of adjudicating a project worthy of funding, but withholding support on the basis of insufficient funds. Assigning proposals the “sufficient quality, but no funding” grade of “4A” is viewed as a poorly camouflaged euphemism for saying that a project is not as important as others that do receive financial support from the federal government. Notwithstanding limited funds, given the assessment of quality that their proposals received, researchers conclude that they would have been funded if proposals related to linguistic duality and OLMCs had been accorded the priority they deserve.

Some of the reasons researchers attribute to the lack of priority given to linguistic duality issues include:

  • The interdisciplinary nature of research on linguistic duality;

  • Limited documentation and information, as well as the absence of a long-established history of research in these areas;

  • Poor awareness among peer review committee members of the need for this research and of the issues involved;

  • Lack of OLMC representation on peer review committees and associated decision-making bodies;

  • Insufficient support from OLMC institutions and the insufficient influence of their decision-making bodies;

  • The relatively small number of researchers dedicated to research on linguistic duality and OLMCs;

  • The close relationship between linguistic duality and OLMC issues with specific challenges, such as health care, education and immigration, affecting the population as a whole, which adds to the complexity of proposals and necessitates multidisciplinary research teams; and

  • Confusion concerning the types of research eligible for funding in such areas, including the priority given to basic as compared to applied research.
2.3.5 Lack of institutional support

Although they face the same barriers as those previously discussed, all official language minority research communities are far from equal in the competition for scarce research funding. Researchers working in the smallest institutions typically encounter more challenges than their colleagues at McGill, Concordia, the University of Ottawa, or even the Université de Moncton. Some of their problems are quite different from those experienced by researchers in the larger centres or in small majority-language universities.

The lack of an established research culture in small minority-language institutions is reflected in the comments of researchers, which included the following:

  • Need for more time to encourage the development and success of research projects, which would necessitate reduced teaching workloads;

  • Lack of secretarial and administrative expertise and support to prepare proposals that compete with professionally produced grant applications submitted by colleagues from larger universities; and

  • The limited number of graduate programs, which would otherwise provide a source of research assistants.

Until quite recently, with the early exception of McGill University, the allocation of rewards and resources to the primarily undergraduate programs of OLMC academic institutions gave precedence to teaching over research. A number of the researchers interviewed—all from the smallest institutions—cited time constraints due to heavy teaching loads and participation in institutional governance and committee work as having a negative influence on their ability to participate in federal government research funding competitions. Six and even seven half-courses per academic year are common for professors at small minority-language and bilingual institutions. In comparison, colleagues employed by large majority-language institutions teach two half-courses per semester with further reductions in their course load to encourage research productivity. In addition, minority Francophone researchers at smaller institutions, particularly those working at bilingual universities, are involved in extensive committee work. Under such circumstances, a shift in the operational and financial context in which smaller  bilingual and official language minority universities evolve would clearly be required to permit the development of a research culture.

In addition, funding application review committees must, understandably, be convinced that a research project can be accomplished in the manner in which it is proposed. The lack of resources available at small institutions for that purpose suggests significant impediments to obtaining funding, particularly when the standards for assessment are set and judged according to measures and contexts familiar to peers from the largest universities in the country. In this regard, 20% of the researchers interviewed, all from minority-language institutions outside Quebec, shared the opinion that reviewers from big universities favour their colleagues in other large institutions, both English and French.

The few researchers that were interviewed who had never applied for a grant to support their research or no longer applied for grants were all employed at small Francophone institutions. They viewed competing against their counterparts from large universities as overwhelming and noted the ineligibility of their own institutions for certain funding. However, in their opinion, poor infrastructure support was the main reason for the lack of research capacity in their academic communities.

2.3.6 Lack of consideration for the particular circumstances of researchers in official language minority community settings

A critical mass of researchers in any given discipline, which is common in large universities and necessary to mentor, assist in preparing proposals and contribute to the successful realization of research projects, is frequently absent in small institutions where a researcher may be the only expert in a particular field, if not in a whole discipline.

While most funding opportunities are open to individual researchers, the perception is that federal research funding agencies have a tendency to fund large team proposals that also favour large universities with a greater pool of researchers from which to create a team. This practice reduces the overall amount of funding available for proposals submitted by individuals. Small institutions are also less likely to have the advantageous mix of both new scholars, who receive special consideration for funding by the granting councils, and seasoned researchers, whose productivity can balance out the track record of potentially less experienced team members.

There is also some debate in the research community regarding the preferred level of specificity of the evaluation criteria and the extent to which evaluation criteria should be defined. This has implications for OLMC institutions in that some criteria, such as the size of the institution, could favour certain OLMC researchers. Finally, although success rates vary by program, rates that are too low can be discouraging for both institutions and researchers.

In conclusion, researchers working in small minority institutions perceive an uneven playing field in the grant application process. They see themselves as being at a disadvantage when their applications are measured by the same standards as those from larger universities.  Specific examples include expectations and requirements concerning the number and scope of academic programs offered, prior publishing record, the reputation of researchers, the availability of graduate students, the depth of research expertise in each discipline, the existence of teams of experts as opposed to individual researchers and pre-existing infrastructure as opposed to infrastructure to be developed in the future.

On the positive side, researchers noted the favourable weighing of criteria by the three granting councils to encourage new researchers and the initial consideration given to smaller institutions by certain agencies such as the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

2.3.7 Physical and intellectual isolation

It would be a serious oversimplification to attribute the barriers facing small bilingual and French minority-language institutions exclusively to their small size. Their differences in comparison to small majority-language universities must be appreciated in order to fully understand the contexts in which they operate. Discussions with representatives of the Association of Colleges and Universities of Canada and the Conference of Rectors and Principals of Quebec Universities easily drew several obvious distinctions.

Small English-language institutions are usually affiliated or federated with large Anglophone universities that share their language of operations and from which they derive certain advantages in terms of their research. They are generally located in or close to major metropolitan areas, which facilitates travel and co-operation with research colleagues. Such proximity is not characteristic of the small French universities in Quebec because they are all constituent members of the Université du Québec system, which supports them in their research efforts and allows them to benefit from significant federal government research funding.

In contrast, official language minority researchers outside Quebec frequently work at institutions that are not only smaller, but are also either bilingual or associated with majority English-language universities. Their geographic distance from French-language colleagues interested in the same subject is significant, adding cost and complexity to personal contact and research collaboration, new electronic communication technologies notwithstanding. Not surprisingly, networks between these researchers are far less established.

2.3.8 Complexity and variability of application procedures

The complexity and variability of application procedures associated with obtaining research funding from federal government sources is another perceived barrier. Some researchers (8 of the 40) were of the opinion that the forms, deadlines and other requirements involved in drafting and submitting research proposals are too complex and time-consuming, especially in the social sciences and humanities. Examples of specific issues identified by these researchers included:

  • The lack of clear criteria and clarity in what is required to submit a successful proposal;

  • The lack of available information to prepare proposals where preparatory research would be necessary;

  • Frequent changes to programs and in the personnel administering them;

  • The lack of transparency in the process;

  • Inadequate feedback or explanations of the reasons for rejecting a proposal;

  • Too many rules and too much bureaucracy; and

  • The lack of reviewers with expertise in certain research areas.

On the encouraging side, researchers identified a number of positive features of current application processes, for example:

  • The peer-reviewed evaluation of applications;

  • The availability and accessibility of funding agency personnel to meet with researchers and provide advice and support;

  • Clear rules in certain competitions;

  • The responses to questions posed in either official language;

  • The availability of information and forms on federal research funding agencies’ Web sites; and

  • The feedback provided by certain funding sources.
2.3.9 Bias toward large majority-language universities

The perception persists among some researchers that, given the negligible chances of obtaining significant research funding from a federal government agency, applying for a competitive application process is not worth the effort.

As reasons for their current disinterest, the small number of researchers interviewed who had never been awarded a research grant from a federal funding source cited other job priorities that prevented them from spending the time necessary to prepare a suitable application and the lack of a research profile that would impress a funding agency. A few others (all from small official language minority institutions outside Quebec) concurred that the chances of obtaining funding from a federal government research funding agency were minimal, and that in any case, the amounts that could be awarded would be insignificant. The specific roadblocks to success identified by these researchers included:

  • Stiff competition from the larger universities;

  • A perceived low future success rate based on their past funding track record;

  • A lack of time to prepare applications;

  • Difficulty in assembling a research team;

  • Funding program preferences for projects submitted by interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary teams rather than individual researchers;

  • Too many applicants for too little money, especially in the humanities and social sciences;

  • Research qualifications that are perceived to be inadequate;

  • The excessively stringent eligibility criteria set by federal research funding agencies; and

  • Insufficient institutional research infrastructure support.

2.4 State of research relevant to official languages issues

As might be expected from published academics, every researcher interviewed was able to respond positively to questions about work planned or in progress that would result in publication, with or without funding from a federal government source. The nature of many of  these projects is directly related to the interests, issues and concerns relevant to the promotion of the linguistic duality and the vitality of OLMCs.

Among the examples of research either currently completed, in progress or identified as part of their future plans, participants mentioned a wide range of topics and initiatives, including Francophone history, literature and cultural practices; health; senior citizens; music; military  matters; and bilingualism among senior citizens. Under current conditions, many of these research initiatives, which are often launched by researchers working in official language minority institutions, may never obtain the grants necessary to carry them out because of the low priority accorded in the past to research on OLMCs and linguistic duality.

The analysis that follows in Section 3 examines the funding environment and prospects for improvement based on interviews with representatives from federal research funding agencies. Questions were related to the outcomes of grant competitions, existing programs, standards and adjudication processes, and innovative approaches and best practices employed to fulfill the federal government’s commitment to the development of OLMCs and the promotion of linguistic duality in Canada.

In conclusion—OLMC researchers identified a number of barriers to obtaining research funding (see Table 4), including limited awareness of funding sources, the language fluency of peer review committees, the low priority given to research on official languages, weak institutional support and their relative isolation from the rest of the academic community.

Table 4 – Summary of perceived barriers by researchers

Researcher’s limited awareness of available funding

Language of publication

Language skills of peer review committees

Lack of priority given to official languages issues

Lack of institutional support

Lack of consideration for the particular circumstances of researchers in OLMC settings

Physical and intellectual isolation

Complexity and variability of application procedures

Bias toward large majority-language universities

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