Canada science review: will funding plea be put into practice?

Scholars applaud recommendation to increase cash for basic research, but question significance of post-budget release

April 12, 2017
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Canadian academics have welcomed a review that calls for a major increase in funding for basic research, but concerns have been raised that the timing of the publication, just weeks after the federal budget announcement, suggests that the government may be hesitant to implement the recommendations.

The government-commissioned report, Investing in Canada’s Future: Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research, says that annual funding for basic research should rise by more than a third – or C$1.3 billion (£780 million) – to C$4.8 billion within four years.

It argues that independent science and scholarly enquiry has been “underfunded for much of the last decade” as ministers have concentrated resources on “innovation-facing and priority-driven programmes”. Direct funding per researcher fell by 35 per cent in real terms between 2000-01 and 2015-16, it says.

The report also recommends the creation of a new National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation (Nacri) to oversee the federal research system, which is currently “weakly coordinated and inconsistently evaluated”.

This new council would report to the government, replace the existing Science, Technology and Innovation Council, and be composed of 12 to 15 members, including distinguished scientists and scholars, it said.

Meanwhile, an additional coordinating board for the country’s four funding agencies would help “harmonise” funding strategies and create structures to accommodate multidisciplinary and “high-risk, high-reward research”.

A review of the support for early career researchers and the development of policies to achieve better equity and diversity outcomes in the allocation of funding are also highlighted as key priorities in the report, which was submitted by the Fundamental Science Review panel, led by David Naylor, professor of medicine at the University of Toronto and former president of the institution.

Jim Woodgett, director of research at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital, which is affiliated to the University of Toronto, said the recommendations “build a real blueprint” for where Canadian research should be heading. But he added that “there is a concern” around the timing of the report, which was published just under three weeks after the country’s federal budget announcement.

“This report was in the hands of government well before [the budget] and it does have a significant ask for an additional billion dollars for fundamental science,” he said. “That is clearly something the government didn’t want to be thinking about in this current fiscal year. That’s a bit of a worry.”

While Dr Woodgett applauded the recommendations to better integrate the research councils through the creation of Nacri, which he said is similar to the Research UK organisation proposed in the UK’s Nurse review in 2015, he added that the success and impact of the body will depend on its members and the heads of each of the agencies.

“They’re relatively powerful people so I’m not convinced they’re going to necessarily be listening to an advisory group,” he said of the leaders of the research agencies.


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David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said in a statement that it is critical that governance of the granting councils “operates at arm’s-length from government”.

But John Smol, Canada research chair in environmental change at Kingston’s Queen’s University, said he is “all for more advice to politicians and policymakers” from the science community and fairly optimistic that the government will implement the recommendations.

“We have a progressive government and they asked for this information,” he said.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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