This oped was published on the Canadian Science Policy Centre website on April 19, 2017
By Paul Davidson, president, Universities Canada
Canada has a new roadmap for regaining a leadership position in global research. The long-awaited report from the Advisory Panel on Federal Support for Fundamental Science charts a promising path for Canada’s research ecosystem. And it conveys an urgency we all understand.
There’s much to unpack in the 280-page report, Investing in Canada’s future: Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research. But as panel chair Dr. David Naylor warned, we can’t afford to get lost in the weeds of mechanisms and governance, and miss an historic opportunity to regain lost ground. From funding agencies, to universities, to individual researchers, Canada’s research community must come together in a call for action on substantial reinvestment in fundamental research.
At the April 10 launch, Dr. Naylor was asked how the research community can help advance the panel’s recommendations. “There is ample fodder in the report to raise a whole number of boats across disciplines, across all four core agencies and beyond,” he advised. “So I would urge some understanding that by supporting these recommendations as a broad package without too much quibbling about the detail, we are much more likely to see this report taken up. That’s number one.”
Make no mistake; there is much at risk if we don’t get this right.
The Naylor report is an historic opportunity to reposition Canada as a global leader in research and discovery. The Advisory Panel of eminent Canadians has given the federal government and the research community an evidence-based plan for renewing support for restoring globally competitive support for Canadian research excellence.
The work of the advisory panel was significant. Their findings come from more than 1,200 written submissions and a dozen round tables with 230 researchers. It shows us the way forward and warns of the consequences of inaction.
The panel notes Canada’s strong history of accomplishments in science and research, and that we have started to lose ground. The report also highlights the strength of our global brand, and the opportunity we have right now in the current global context to make important strides for the future. Broadly, the Advisory Panel recommends improved stewardship and federal oversight in the research funding system, and even more urgently, strategic enhancement to federal research funding.
Universities are currently paying more than 50 percent of research costs, affecting both research and education. Real per-capital funding for independent or investigator-led research has fallen by 30 percent in recent years. With federal support for R&D in higher education now at less than 25 percent of total spending, many other OECD nations are passing us by. In 2006, Canadian universities ranked third in R&D spending among OECD nations, relative to our GDP.
Enhanced funding from the federal government will boost the quality and quantity of research projects in universities across the country, while also improving education for the next generation of scientists and scholars. The report recommends an increase in federal funding from $3.5 billion to $4.8 billion over the next four years.
Canada has the talent and the track record to be a world leader in research. But without substantial reinvestment in the system, our next generation of researchers won’t be able to achieve their potential. The report provides detailed analysis of the impact of research funding erosion on early career researchers and makes recommendations to address this longstanding concern. The report makes important recommendations about addressing diversity and inclusion, and acknowledges the challenges of geography and interdisciplinarity.
For example, panelist Dr. Claudia Malacrida of the University of Lethbridge spoke at the launch about how place informs one’s research.
“I think it’s important that we feed knowledge systems at all levels,” she said. “One of the things that I’ve noticed through my participation in this process is that I’m so on the margins, it’s not funny. From Lethbridge, it takes me 11 hours to get to Ottawa, and that actually kind of translates into the ways that we operate regionally. It takes time to do our research. We engage in local interests and regional specializations. We’re situated in our geography, and while sometimes that can pose challenges, it also enriches the kind of knowledge production we can take on.”
Dr. Anne Wilson of Wilfrid Laurier University highlighted the role of the social sciences and humanities in advancing discovery and innovation in Canada. “Sometimes the most important ways in which our society has changed have been informed by social science, by humanities and by our deeper understanding of living an inclusive and socially just life,” she said. “And the ways in which research has – has influenced that sometimes gets missed.”
This report is indeed a groundbreaking document – but excellent evidence and persuasive argument does not ensure success.
Advisory Panel member Dr. Martha Crago reminds us of the need to build support for investment in fundamental research not just among parliamentarians, but among Canadians coast to coast. We must raise awareness of what fundamental research is and how it benefits people of all social and economic backgrounds. Our universities need to share stories of world-leading research that saves lives, addresses climate change and helps drive innovation. And we need to nurture champions.
With this report, we have the evidence and we have the plan. Now is the time to work together for action.
About Universities Canada
Universities Canada is the voice of Canada’s universities at home and abroad, advancing higher education, research and innovation for the benefit of all Canadians.
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