Friday, April 21, 2017

Canada’s Fundamental Science Review: Good News for Basic Research!

—Heidi Engelhardt, FAUW Board of Directors

A comprehensive look at research in Canada

The report “Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research”, released April 10, 2017, is the culmination of a thorough look at the federal research ‘ecosystem’ in Canada. There is a lot to like here for the entire research community. Although the report was submitted to the Minister of Science, it goes well beyond STEM disciplines. Indeed, research was defined to include both science and non-science (‘scholarly inquiry’).

For this undertaking, the more important distinction was between investigator-led research focused on knowledge generation, versus ‘priority-driven’ research. The latter was defined as research with a tightly defined area of focus, oriented primarily to partnerships (with government, industry, business), or promoting knowledge translation, innovation, and commercialization. The primary focus was on investigator-led research supported by the three granting councils plus CFI, referred to as the four funding agencies.

The advisory panel

A nine-member Advisory Panel appointed in June 2016 consisted of six academics from diverse disciplines across Canada, the Chief Scientist of Quebec, an expat Canadian now the Silverman Professor of Physics and Public Policy at UC Berkeley and Mike Lazaridis. There were meetings with 230 researchers at different career stages, 1,275 written submissions and roundtables in five cities (Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Ottawa, Halifax).

The 280 page report is surprisingly readable. Their mandate was captured by two broad questions:
  1. Are there any overall program gaps in Canada’s fundamental research funding ecosystem that need to be addressed? 
  2. Are there elements or programming features in other countries that could provide a useful example for the Government of Canada in addressing these gaps?

Challenges identified

It will surprise no one that one of their findings was that Canada’s research competitiveness had eroded in recent years, in association with flat-lined federal spending and redirection of funding to priority-driven and partnership oriented research. Coordination and collaboration among the four agencies was found to be suboptimal, and variability in practices was evident across these agencies beyond what could be explained by disciplinary differences.  

Lack of ‘life cycle’ support for both researchers and equipment/infrastructure was discussed at length. With respect to researcher support, the panel believed that the CRC program was no longer meeting its aim to “attract and retain the world’s most accomplished and promising minds”. A substantial (and rising) number of chairs are awarded to researchers already in-house or recruited from other Canadian universities; 10-15% of chairs are empty at any given time. At least part of this may be due to the fact that the funding levels of these positions have been unchanged for the past 17 years. Even more concern was expressed about the CERC (Canada Excellence Research Chairs) program, hence the recommendation that retooling the CRC program was the more sustainable strategy. 

With respect to trainees, levels of funding and numbers of awards for students and postdoctoral fellows have not kept pace, variously, with inflation, peer nations, or the number of applicants. The panel recommended that doctoral scholarship and PDF programs be reinvigorated, and harmonized across the tri-councils to achieve more consistency. They also recommended elimination of barriers to international portability.

The growth in programs requiring cost-sharing or matching support was flagged as problematic in some jurisdictions and inappropriate for many disciplines. It was recommended that when the intent is to support independent research, matching should be used sparingly and in a coordinated and targeted manner.

Highlights of recommendations

Overall, 35 specific recommendations were made. Highlights include:
  • creation of an independent National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation (NACRI) that would work closely with the soon-to-be appointed Chief Science Advisor
  • wide ranging improvements in oversight and governance of all four agencies
  • more money! … significant reinvestment on a multi-year basis spread across …
    • investigator-led grants (highest priority)
    • enhanced personnel support for researchers and trainees at different career stages
    • targeted spending on infrastructure-related operating costs for small equipment and Big Science facilities
    • improved coverage of the institutional costs of research

Inevitably, this boils down to the reality of dollars. Carrying out these recommendations was estimated to increase annual spending across the four agencies from approximately $3.5 billion to $4.8 billion, requiring redirection of an additional 0.4% of the Government of Canada’s annual budget. While most of this funding would go to the granting councils’ core programs, a portion would be channelled to investigator-led projects involving international collaborations, multidisciplinary work, high-risk, high-reward (‘HR2’) ventures and projects requiring rapid response.

Other valuable information

In addition to its potential impact on national science policy, this document is a rich source of information on many topics, including:  
  • trends in research funding among select G7 nations, key east Asian countries and small peer nations (Chapter 3)
  • a comparison of funding levels by the three granting agencies (an eye opener for some; Chapters 4, 5, 7)
  • a discussion of targets for success rates in grant competitions (20% minimum suggested; Chapter 5)
  • of particular relevance to Waterloo - Canada’s World Share in Emerging Research Areas, many of which are considered to be strengths of our institution (nanotech, bioinformatics, computer science, quantum computing, robotics and mechatronics, et al.; Appendix 1) 

Overall, this undertaking and its report – an impressive output in less than a year – is good news for Canadian research. It is unlikely that there will ever be enough funding to support all researchers at all institutions in a style to which they would like to become accustomed. And “reasonable people will disagree unreasonably about where the funds flow”. However, this report outlines many steps, large and small, in the right direction. The question now is whether, and when these recommendations will be implemented.

I encourage you to browse the report itself, and the analysis posted by CAUT.

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