Canada panel on fundamental science nears its conclusion

Researchers are ‘cautiously optimistic’ about review set up by Justin Trudeau’s government to improve relations with the scientific community

November 24, 2016
Group of people watching eclipse in Canada
Source: Getty

Spread over 58 lakes in northwest Ontario, the Experimental Lakes Area allows scientists to manipulate entire ecosystems; it is the only research station of its kind. In 2012, Canada’s federal government extinguished its funding. “It got shut down in a memo,” says John Smol, a professor in the department of biology at Queen’s University. “It didn’t even get a press release. It was like: Oh, guess what? They’re shutting it down! It was unbelievable.” Its annual cost was five cents per taxpayer.

The episode exemplified the difficult relationship that the government led by Stephen Harper had with scientists. The 2012 federal budget closed major research facilities and libraries, and their contents were destroyed. Government scientists were forbidden from freely speaking to the media, and funding for basic research was cut.

These policies – which critics called a “war on science” – provoked unprecedented political protest, with thousands of scientists marching on Canada’s parliament to decry the “Death of Evidence” with a mock funeral in June 2012. “Canadian academics were frustrated, stymied and, ultimately, fed up,” says Alana Westwood, research coordinator for the advocacy group Evidence for Democracy.

“Researchers faced shrinking funding for basic science. Throughout the tenure of the previous Conservative government, our research intensity stayed dismally low, and our international rankings plummeted.” In 2014, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development reported that Canada had dropped out of the top 10 research and development investors worldwide.

Harper’s defeat in the 2015 federal election brought about “cautious optimism” among researchers; the new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, pledged to “value science and treat scientists with respect”. He “unmuzzled” government scientists, agreed to appoint a chief scientific officer, and chose Kirsty Duncan – a medical geographer who served on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – as minister of science.

Tasked with planning a review into federal funding for fundamental research, Duncan appointed a panel chaired by David Naylor, who, as chair of the Advisory Panel on Health Care Innovation, refused to yield to Harper’s demands for revisions to his recommendations. The panel is drawing on recent reports, evidence submitted online, and consultations with three groups of researchers. It is also looking to other countries to consider whether Canadian science could benefit from adopting features of different research funding systems.

According to Martha Crago, panel member and vice-president for research at Dalhousie University, the review has been long overdue. “We’ve had 40 years of funding delivered budget by budget, programme by programme, without a system that looks over the entirety of it and says: have we got this right? Times have changed,” says Crago. “This is really a research ecosystem that hasn’t had frequent looks.”

A review into fundamental research comes as a pleasant surprise for academic scientists, considering the Harper government’s drive towards marketable research.

“The previous government was widely criticised for trying to steer the direction of research through partnerships and externally imposed priorities,” says Naylor, a former president of the University of Toronto.

He says that the review so far has not uncovered any “great surprises given the pressures and concerns that have been building in the system over the last decade”. Increasing pressure to deliver high-impact research has left fundamental science neglected, and under the influence of the former science minister, Gary Goodyear, Canada’s National Research Council transitioned into an industry-focused organisation “dedicated to building economic competitiveness”.

According to Smol, fundamental research – such as that conducted at the Experimental Lakes Area – often produces too much “pesky data” to attract industrial collaborations.

“If you’re building a better mineshaft, then I see no problem in a mining company paying [for] 100 per cent [of the research]. There is a place for sponsored research,” says Smol.

“But I work on lake ecosystems. Can you imagine phoning a person and going: ‘I think you’re polluting the environment; can you give me C$50,000 to show the government?’ That just isn’t going to happen, so you need this unfettered type of funding.”

Money for fundamental research has not evaporated entirely, Crago says, and scientists will always call for more. The panel’s job is to scrutinise how it is distributed, asking questions such as “has there been enough investment, and is it the right kind? Is it having the impact that we want?”

While senior scientists line up to report to the panel on blue-sky research, the review will turn some attention to how early career researchers may be supported.

Duncan has expressed a wish to promote equal opportunities in science, and she has Naylor’s backing.

“The baby boomers are staying on and seem to be very productive in their sixties. Combine that with funding constraints; and new scientists seem to face more of an uphill climb than was the case 20 years ago,” he says.

“We’re also paying attention to diversity issues, not least those pertaining to women in research, and Canada’s indigenous peoples.”

The breadth of the review is enormous; it covers all aspects of funding for fundamental science – and for equipment, facilities and platform technologies – to identify any gaps in the “ecosystem”. In theory, the panel has unlimited scope for recommendations, although Naylor says that it is too early to speculate as to how significant they may be.

Naylor, Crago and the rest of the panel are working quickly because they are due to reach their conclusions by the end of the year and to publish their report in January. Once the review has been published, the question then may be whether Trudeau’s government is ready to listen to scientists.

“We’re advisory, and sometimes people take your advice and sometimes they don’t,” Crago says.

“But this is a government that’s very earnest about science, and the very fact that they’ve put a committee together specifically about fundamental science shows that they’re serious about it. From the point of view of researchers and scientists, it’s a reassuring government.”

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” says Westwood, “however, politics is nothing if not unpredictable.”


Print headline: Canadians look to blue-sky review to warm climate

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