Helping everyone means including everyone
Research approaches that consistently account for sex and gender differences drive innovation and scientific rigour, while also reducing gender-based health inequities for previously underrepresented voices. Now, Brain Canada is implementing its own official Sex, Gender & Diversity and Inclusion Policy.
The development of the policy was in some ways prompted by the foundation’s “year of awakening” in 2018: the Future Leaders in Canadian Brain Research grant competition, which awards grants to some of Canada’s most promising early career brain health researchers, was usually a cause for celebration. But of the 10 grantees that year, only one was a woman.
“For good reason, that prompted negative reaction from some in the research community,” said Viviane Poupon, President and CEO of Brain Canada Foundation.
Prior to that competition, Brain Canada had already begun to take a more intentional approach toward sex, gender, and diversity, and even begun implementing sex and gender considerations on some of its projects. But the pushback around the Future Leaders recipients was a catalyst to take more concrete steps.
“Now, the beauty of this policy is it gives us a framework to make the changes within our reach,” says Poupon. “For us, that means in how we fund research. With this type of policy framework, we can ensure that we’re actually doing concrete actions that are going to promote better treatment for everyone.”
“The research community has gone through this realization that we need to better design research, we need to be more inclusive, and we need to consider the patient and their perspective.”
– Viviane Poupon, President and CEO of Brain Canada
Historically, brain research on humans has been conducted on white male subjects. In addition, male rats have traditionally been considered “easier” to study because female hormones make female rats less “stable” research subjects—meaning much of the basic science that underpins our understanding of neuroscience is based on the male brain.
This imbalance has led to gaping holes in both the understanding of diseases and how effective treatments work for women and other subgroups. For example, two-thirds of Alzheimer’s patients are female, but most of the research into the disease is based on male-rat models.
“It’s one of the main reasons why we’re slow to get 100 per cent efficiency in treatment,” said Catherine Ferland, Brain Canada’s Chief Research and Program Officer.
Poupon adds that actively studying the impact of sex and gender on health, aging, and disease leads to improvements in human health. Sex- and gender-based comparisons can inform research on disease mechanisms and the development of new therapeutics as well as enhance scientific rigor and reproducibility. “When you don’t actively include sex and gender considerations in research, you miss opportunities to find effective therapies,” she says.
Homogenous groups of researchers can also lead to more homogenous outcomes, which is why the policy will also encourage sex, gender, and diversity considerations for grantees.
“Researchers with different backgrounds ask different types of questions. When you capture that diversity, and get different angles and different perspectives, that’s how you get rich hypotheses and ideas,” Poupon says.
The new policy, which builds upon Brain Canada’s longstanding commitment to collaboration, will introduce sex, gender, and diversity considerations to every stage of the granting process. For example, all applicants will now be asked to consider a diverse range of differences including sex, gender, age, ethnicity, and education on their applications (or provide a rationale when it’s not applicable).
In parallel, Brain Canada is actively working to diversify and educate its review panels. This means ensuring panels are balanced with male and female reviewers and include experts from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Reviewers will also be supported with tools to recognize—and combat—their own unconscious biases and they are encouraged to actively overcome them as they assess proposals.
Finally, the policy provides a framework for promoting and celebrating diversity in projects, grantees and outcomes through Brain Canada’s communications and more.
By implementing the policy, Brain Canada hopes to be an ambassador for this kind of active, intentional, approach to inclusion, as they work with funding partners to implement sex, gender, and diversity considerations across all their funding programs.
“As a funding agency, we have the duty to make sure these policies are integrated into the work we fund—we can’t pretend that sex and gender differences don’t exist anymore. By doing this, we can be a bit of a guiding light for our partners and other agencies to enact their own policies once they see the value of the change from working with Brain Canada,” Ferland says.
Providing more balanced research for future scientists to work with is a primary aim of the new policy. Poupon recalls the Human Genome Project: while the massive sequencing project was an achievement, because 80% of the sequenced DNA was Caucasian, today scientists must work to “undo” that bias 20 years later to get a more fulsome, accurate portrait of the human genome.
“We hope that we can generate data and research outcomes for the future that will be balanced, and in doing so build a stronger body of evidence that applies more broadly,” Poupon says. “The failure to do so would both hamper our ability to better understand human health and disease and further exacerbate disparities in health outcomes.”Perhaps the most important outcome, however, is enabling higher impact research. “That’s the reason why we’re doing it. We want better research outcomes and more complete knowledge,” she adds.
Ferland agrees. “At the end of the day, if we want to help everyone, we need to include everyone.”
Brain Canada presented its new Sex & Gender & Diversity Inclusion Policy at the Sex, Gender, Diversity, and Inclusion Knowledge Exchange Event hosted by Health Canada last month. To learn more about supporting Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in science, visit www.braincanada.ca