“I needed the evidence.”
As an academic with a PhD in geography from her pre-political life, Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan understands the importance of making decisions based on the facts at hand. In an attempt to revive research science in Canada after a “dark age” of stagnant federal funding under the Harper government, Minister Duncan commissioned a nine-member advisory panel to put together the Investing in Canada’s Future: Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research review on the state of basic science research in the country. Led by former University of Toronto president, David Naylor, the review—dubbed the “Naylor Report”— was submitted to the Government of Canada on April 10th, 2017 and fervently calls for a $1.3 billion infusion into basic science funding over the next four years—an increase from $3.5 billion to $4.8 billion, reaching 0.4% of the government’s annual federal budget at the end of those four years. This is no pocket change. As we eagerly (and cautiously) await the government’s decisions for implementation, there is unanimous support and understanding amongst the nation’s scientific and academic community that the hefty price tag may be a necessity in order to pull Canadian research out of its downward spiral into oblivion.
CANADA’S RESEARCH COMPETITIVENESS HAS ERODED IN RECENT YEARS ”
Over the past few years, federal spending on the four core funding agencies—the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI), the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)—has flatlined (declined, even, if one factors in inflation), with federal resources accounting for less than 25% of total spending in research and development. These changes coincided with Canada falling out of the top 30 nations in total research intensity, and dropping from seventh to ninth in total research output from 2005-2010 to 2009-2014. Although Canada’s publication output is growing, this growth was slower than the world average during 2003-2014.
In addition, the shift of funding to priority-driven and partnership-oriented projects has made research in fundamental basic sciences formatively difficult. A recent report from the Global Young Academy showed that 40% of Canadian scientists have reported changing the direction of their research program away from basic science in the last ten years, with less than 2% of scientists engaging in solely basic science during 2011-2015 from 24% in 2006- 2010. In fact, there was a decline of 35.55% in fundamental research funding per researcher by NSERC’s Discovery grants between 2005 and 2015, while applied research funded by NSERC’s Innovation grants increased by 9.02% per researcher. Furthermore, a recent University of British Columbia survey of investigators indicated at least 71% of respondents at each career stage reported scaling down their research programs because of changes to the CIHR research granting program over the past few years. In order to rectify this imbalance, which is highlighted as the single most important recommendation, the Naylor Report proposes a phased-in investment of $485 million over four years in directly funding research operating grants to independent investigators. The aim is to restore the 70:30 funding ratio in favour of investigator-led research that pervaded throughout the early 2000s.
Other funding recommendations highlighted in the Naylor Report are aimed at providing support for the lab environment and personnel. One such proposal is stable annual funding of $300 million to the CFI for infrastructural support, rather than the current model of deploying one-time only allocations spread over several years. Furthermore, $35 million per year over four years has been suggested for reinvigorating and harmonizing scholarships and fellowship programs for students and post-doctoral fellows, and for awards that attract international talent. Funding to the Canadian Research Chairs program is advised to be restored back to 2012 levels of a $35 million base annual commitment with asymmetrical allocation of Chairs to Tier 2 awards for early career researchers. In addition, the Naylor Report calls for a “decentralized system of funding” with the creation of a National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation (NACRI), which will comprise of 12 to 15 distinguished Canadian scholars and scientists from a wide range of disciplines who reflect Canada’s diversity and regions. The NACRI, along with the recently appointed Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA), will act as an independent non-partisan body to advise the Prime Minister and Cabinet on federal spending decisions for research and innovation, representing a high-level oversight into the ecosystem of research funding.
SEIZING THE LEADERSHIP MOMENT ”
Despite publicly agreeing with many of the recommendations in the Naylor Report, Minister Duncan is tepid about discussing implementation. As she mulls over the document, researchers across Canada have reason to be cynical. After showing a strong commitment to basic science research in their first federal budget last year, Trudeau’s government disappointed many by not mentioning Tri-Council funding at all in the budget released this past spring. Emphasis seems to be placed on “innovation” with $950 million over five years given to Silicon Valley-like “superclusters” dense with companies and academics, but even this fund was a re-allocation from last year’s budget rather than new money. The government has shown willingness to invest in scientific infrastructure with projects like the Lab Innovation for Toronto (LIFT) initiative, but it remains to be seen whether the research itself will be getting its much-needed financial injections. The government has stated that it was waiting for the Naylor Report before moving forward on making changes to the existing funding programs.
The recreation of the CSA, a position discontinued in 2008, has been a refreshing gesture in the government’s commitment to evidence and consultation. Dr. Mona Nemer, a cardiology researcher and the Vice-President of Research at the University of Ottawa, has been appointed in the role and will serve with a $2 million budget for her mandate to act as the “voice” of scientists by advising the Prime Minister and his Cabinet on research funding and keeping science accessible to the public. Although her tenure is still in its infancy, it is clear that Dr. Nemer will face an uphill battle in this new post.
A CASE FOR SCIENCE AND INQUIRY ”
Many scientific “voices” can definitely be heard travelling through the airwaves these days. This past April, Canadians were among the many demonstrators in 600 different cities around the world rallying for evidence-based policy in the March for Science. Although the March was a response to the current political situation south of the border, Canadian researchers are not soon to forget the ideology-driven decisions that shaped policy here at home over the past decade. Many are adorning their lab coats with picket signs as the impetus for change is becoming more urgent. Such is the motivation behind science advocacy groups like Evidence for Democracy (E4D), a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that promotes evidence-based policy-making through engagement of the scientific community in education and public outreach. Organizations like E4D encourage scientists to reach the wider community—outside of the academic bubble—to help the general public understand the importance of investing their tax dollars in scientific research and innovation.
Public pressure is key to policy change. It is difficult to overstate the necessity of implementing the Naylor Report. If politicians do not see science funding as a priority issue, then it is our responsibility—not only as researchers, but as their constituents—to inform them and hold them accountable during the next election cycle.
You have your evidence, Minister Duncan.
We hope you choose to act upon it.
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