(This article has been translated into French.)

It’s time we proactively build our digital research infrastructure strategy on the bedrock of equity, diversity and inclusion and make Canada a leader in this space. There have been arguments for increased representation through the lens of social responsibility – a laudable position. However, few have argued the economic benefits of a diverse workplace. This is particularly true in the digital research infrastructure (DRI) field, where Canada already benefits directly from a diverse workforce. But we could be tapping into our potential so much more.

In 2018, the government of Canada took a positive step toward co-ordinating our national computing power and connectivity with the best possible software and storage services available for data through a digital research infrastructure strategy. Under this strategy, a new contribution program was established under which the Digital Research Alliance of Canada (formerly the New Digital Research Infrastructure Organization) was awarded up to $375 million to co-ordinate and lead the national DRI strategy. As a federal not-for-profit organization, the Digital Research Alliance of Canada seeks to build and sustain a strong and vibrant DRI ecosystem in Canada.

DRI is the collection of tools and services that allow researchers to turn big data into scientific breakthroughs. Data is not simply the new oil in our economy, but also an essential tool for scientific progress. Well-constructed, clearly defined and large volumes of exchangeable and useful data underpins quality research and policy in every discipline. As the global innovation race speeds up, only the countries that have world-class DRI in place will be able to stay competitive.

As the inaugural chief executive officer of the Digital Research Alliance of Canada, it is clear to me that one of our emergent priorities is to find ways to develop and retain Canada’s highly qualified personnel in the DRI field, including data curators, analysts, archivists, software developers and system administrators, who support and manage the underlying hardware. Cybersecurity expertise ensures that the knowledge created is protected. Positioning equity, diversity and inclusion at the forefront in hiring and training will be central to ensuring we have a robust, innovative, creative and competitive workforce.

Canada’s strengths in diversity and multiculturalism already provide a definite advantage to our technology exports, such as software and applications. Our products are highly attractive to other countries because adoption is considered easier for users than products from other regions, especially for markets in Europe, Asia and South America. Why?

A Canadian technology product has a good chance of being created by a project team comprised of individuals from different countries, which is a direct result of Canada’s immigration-friendly policies and longstanding commitment to international education. In this context, a project team’s lived experiences influence how any Canadian technology product is designed. Adoption of that product will most likely be stronger in foreign markets where the end user also has shared lived experiences with those on the product development team.

In other words, Canada’s competitive advantage for technology exports is actually embedded in our very fabric and identity as Canadians.

So why aren’t we shaping our policies around our biggest natural asset – our diverse workforce?

Our future prosperity is in our diversity 

What can governments and employers do to move equity, diversity and inclusion forward? We are at a historic moment of opportunity – and we need to seize it.

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An obvious place to start would be to encourage more women to choose science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers. In the late 20th century and into the early 21st, increased interest was placed on women-centred STEM programs. There was also a push to increase the number of women mentors who could promote and encourage women to develop the skills required to succeed and remain in the sector as a career choice. Yet, according to a 2020 report by Women in Communications and Technology, only 31.3 per cent of individuals employed in information, technology and communications (ICT) were women. Even worse, 16 per cent of Canadian ICT firms report no women in senior management roles and only four per cent of Canada’s largest technology companies are led by female CEOs.

Canada could do so much better.

Similarly, as a potential policy option, racialized Canadians could specifically be targeted through enabling immigration policies to attract high technology skills into the country. Canada has long been a source of technology talent to the United States. Why not attract others to Canada with similar skills and enrich their lived experience by virtue of exposing them to Canada’s pluralistic communities? A DRI strategy embedded in equity, diversity and inclusion would help all the players in the field in Canada work together toward a shared goal – to make Canada a global leader and magnet for technology talent.

Another example worth exploring is through leveraged partnerships. Mitacs is a national, not-for-profit organization that has designed and delivered research and training programs in Canada for 20 years. Working with 70 universities, 6,000 companies, and both federal and provincial governments, Mitacs builds partnerships that support industrial and social innovation in Canada.

Separate, but related, the 50 – 30 Challenge is an initiative co-created by the government of Canada, civil society and the private sector that aims to attain gender parity and significant representation (at least 30 per cent) of under-represented groups on boards and senior management positions to build a more diverse, inclusive and vibrant economic future for Canadians.

These two distinct programs could benefit from working toward the same ends. Establishing common goals between Mitacs’ efforts for training and the federal government’s own initiatives around equity, diversity and inclusion would maximize efforts resulting in social equity and efficiency.

Similarly, a tripartite agreement between Mitacs, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) and the Digital Research Alliance of Canada could target women, Indigenous, Black, LGBTQ2+ and other under-represented communities to harness their unique lived experiences in the DRI field. As we design Canada’s new DRI strategy, issues of equity, diversity and inclusion must figure prominently.

Bold strides supported by bold policies are needed around issues of representation in racialized, Indigenous and other marginalized populations. However, as opposed to reinventing solutions, perhaps a more coherent framework is needed to ensure all of us are pushing toward the same outcomes.

Canada needs to make progress not only in how we design this strategy, but also in who will be called upon to execute it.

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Nizar Ladak
Nizar Ladak is CEO of the Digital Research Alliance of Canada. In 2021, he was awarded the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) Leaders and Legends Distinguished Service Award. He was named one of Canada’s Top 25 Immigrants by the Royal Bank of Canada and Canadian Immigrant magazine in 2019.

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