Research community awaits government response to science review

This article was originally published in The Hill Times on June 26, 2017. Reprinted with permission by The Hill Times.

By Derek Abma

A panel recommended the government boost spending to support scientific research by $1.3-billion over four years.

The federal government is expected to respond in the coming days to a report that called for a more-than $1-billion hike in scientific research spending, and it remains to be seen if stakeholders are pleased or disappointed with what they see.

Ann-Marie Paquet, a spokeswoman for Science Minister Kirsty Duncan (Etobicoke North, Ont.), last week said the minister was not available to speak on the report, but that an announcement related to it was likely “early” this week.

The government announced a review of its support for fundamental scientific research in June 2016. Led by former University of Toronto president David Naylor, a panel released a report this April that recommended, among other things, that the government increase funding provided for scientific research through four federal agencies from $3.5-billion to $4.8-billion annually, phased in over four years. These agencies are the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), and the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI).

Of the $1.3-billion in extra funding recommended, $485-million would go directly to investigator-led research, $478-million would support facility and administration costs for research, $140-million would go toward scholarship and fellowships, another $140-million would be for research chairs, $35-million would be for operating major research facilities, and $30-million would be for small capital projects.

The U15-Group of Canadian Research Universities has been in regular contact with the government since the so-called Naylor report was released on April 10, according to the federal lobbyists registry. This included a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) on May 10, as well as Ms. Duncan and some of her staff on May 11.

Suzanne Corbeil, executive director of this group that represents the most research-intensive universities in the country, said there’s still no clear indication from the government on how it will respond to the panel’s report.

“Certainly, we’re not getting any sort of official reaction, [which is] very typical of these types very high-level meetings with the government,” she said. “They’re definitely signalling that this is a very important and comprehensive report and there’s a lot for them to digest.”

Ms. Corbeil added that the government seems to be “dampening expectations so that it is clear to us that if, in fact, we do want to see the recommendations coming out of this, that we have a job to do in demonstrating the importance of this report.”

In making the case for the $1.3-billion spending boost, the report noted how there had been a “flat-lining” of federal spending on scientific research in recent years, adding that much of the investments that were made tended to go toward “priority-driven and partnership-oriented research, reducing available support for independent, investigator-led research by frontline scientists and scholars.”

It noted that the amount spent on all forms of research and development, in proportion to the size of the economy, has been declining for the last 15 years, while many G7 peers and Asian countries have been going in the opposite direction. As a result, it said, Canada is no longer among the top 30 countries in terms of research spending in proportion to GDP.

“The [funding increase] they’ve talked about in this report is certainly not out of the realm,” said Ms. Corbeil. “It is, in fact, what is required to rebalance the amount of funding required for universities to be able to contribute.”

Still, she said she’s concerned about what level of funding the government ends up committing, given other financial pressures on it like a promised military spending hike of 70 per cent to $47.2-billion over the next decade and projections of large deficits for the foreseeable future.

Universities Canada has also been meeting with government officials in recent months. Its president, Paul Davidson, said: “We do understand there’s been some good early deliberation on the key recommendations of the report, and there’ll be some early signals [from the government] that could be very important signals.”

He added: “I think what the government wants to do is send a signal to researchers and to the universities of the seriousness of their intent on implementing the report.”

Mr. Davidson also noted a government tendency to “try to manage interest groups’ expectations downwards, and that’s to be expected. But what the report has done is put forward a very clear diagnostic of what the current reality is in the research ecosystem, a very clear roadmap, and a series of investments over time. No one has said this all has to be done by Christmas.”

He said there are immediate steps the government could take in response to the report that would not cost significant amounts of money. For example, he suggested tweaking some of the structures in places, such as improving the coordination between the four scientific-funding agencies.

Another recommendation of the report is the creation of an independent National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation that would work in conjunction with Canada’s new chief science adviser in evaluating all federal scientific involvement.

There are expectations that Minister Duncan is poised to announce imminently who will fill the newly created role of chief science adviser.

Asked if he’s concerned that other financial pressures the government is facing will affect its response to this report on science, Mr. Davidson said: “I think what this government has shown that it’s willing to invest and invest at scale, that it sees the value of strategic investments that will help transport our economy and move our economy forward.”

Paul-Émile Cloutier, the new president of HealthCareCAN, representing hospitals and other institutes involved in health research, said his group strongly supports the panel’s report. He said he hopes to see some real substance in the government’s response to it.

“This cannot be just about process,” he said. “And it cannot be just dragging your feet and not coming up with any actions. The community has called for action, and we probably cannot wait till the federal budget comes forth in February or March. We can’t wait for that full cycle.”

HealthCareCAN was one of seven groups that last week signed an open letter to the prime minister calling for implementation of the Naylor report.

“If Canada expects to be a nexus of scientific excellence and a leader in the knowledge economy, we must immediately address our acute research funding deficit. Current programs fail to ensure the necessary long-term sustainability of the research enterprise they foster. As a result, we run a real risk of weakening the vibrant community of scholarship in Canada,” said the letter, which was also signed by representatives of the Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada, Research Canada, the Health Charities Coalition of Canada, BioteCanada, Canada’s Medical Technology Companies, and Innovative Medicines Canada.

Ms. Corbeil said the benefits of bolstering federal support for scientific research has benefits beyond the direct results of the science, but also on the economy at large.

“Every research dollar contributes to communities and provides support for staff and students and creates findings and outcomes that benefit Canadians overall,” she said. “The impacts are far more than Professor A finding a new cure for something and commercializing it, but all of those things do happen.”

Denise Amyot, president of Colleges and Institutes Canada, noted that this review was about the support available for “basic” scientific research, in which the goals are not defined, as opposed to “applied” research, which members of her organization are mostly involved with and tends to be done with clear objectives.

However, she said she’s interested in the government’s response to the report as any streamlining of rules surrounding support for research would affect her organization.

“Everyone would stand to benefit from clearer and less complicated avenues to support the full spectrum of research,” she said.

As well, she said more support for basic research could affect her members as colleges and institutes are often called upon to partner with universities on applied research as a followup to basic research.

However, Ms. Amyot said to truly take advantage of this, the government would have to increase the funding it makes available for applied research. She said this currently stands at about $75-million a year and her organization is looking for about $300-million.

“If it is the same amount, it will create even more pressure on us and on the industries that we serve because there is just not enough,” she said.

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The Hill Times

Panel members that reviewed federal support for fundamental research:

David Naylor (chair), former president, University of Toronto

Robert Birgeneau, former chancellor, University of California, Berkeley

Martha Crago, vice-president of research, Dalhousie University

Mike Lazaridis, co-founder, BlackBerry

Claudia Malacrida, associate vice-president of research, University of Lethbridge

Art McDonald, former director, Sudbury Neutrino Laboratory

Martha Piper, interim president, University of British Columbia

Rémi Quirion, chief scientist, Quebec government

Anne Wilson, psychology professor, Wilfrid Laurier University

Universities Canada