Litmus test for science funding

The Naylor report will test the willingness of Justin Trudeau’s government to overhaul research support, writes Creso Sá

April 20, 2017
Colourful test tubes
Source: iStock

When it won the Canadian general election in late 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s incoming Liberal government took on an unabashedly pro-science stance that set it apart from the previous Conservative administration under Stephen Harper.

Scientists working for the federal government would no longer face constraints on their freedom to speak to the media or even participate in academic conferences. The post of science minister was reinstated, the stagnant budgets of the federal research councils were increased and new funding was announced for research infrastructure. Then, in June 2016, a “Review of Federal Support for Fundamental Science” was launched, under the chairmanship of former University of Toronto president David Naylor.

Fast forward to March 2017 and cracks appeared to be showing in the facade. The Naylor report had been kept under wraps since its anticipated December publication, and no explanation was provided. When the Liberals’ second annual budget included no increases in research funding, many suspected that this was the reason for the delay: it would be poor politics to release the report and not follow through with investments.

The report was finally published on 10 April and the nature of its recommendations gives credence to such suspicions. Naylor carefully documents several failings in Canada’s research support and recommends that new funding to the tune of an additional C$1.3 billion (£780 million) be made available in several areas over the next four years. This year’s budget, described by finance minister Bill Morneau as a “down payment on the innovation agenda”, could not deliver the goods.

However, the report is not just a plea for more money. It is a comprehensive review that encompasses extensive consultations and pulls no punches. It documents the slippage in Canada’s investigator-initiated research; the complex array of boutique funding initiatives overlaid on top of one another; chronic equity issues in academic science and structural difficulties afflicting early career researchers; the lack of proper instruments to support high-risk and multidisciplinary research, as well as international partnerships; the fragmentation of funding practices and programme formats across federal agencies; and some of the country’s punitive funding arrangements that undercompensate universities for the indirect costs of research and rely too heavily on match funding across a range of programmes.

Fragmentation is a common theme across a range of areas covered in the document, from how federal councils support graduate students to the existing funding schemes to support the capital, operating and indirect costs of major research facilities. The problem is that each of the major federal agencies supporting the academic research system designs and communicates programmes in its own way, a trend exacerbated by the growing number of independently organised funding initiatives established over the past 20 years.

On the one hand, the report will put to the test the ability and willingness of the Liberals to overhaul research support with detailed funding recommendations to address existing inadequacies. On the other, it provides some low-hanging fruit to the government, with commonsensical and relatively cheap measures to improve policy coordination.

For instance, the report recommends that general oversight be provided by a newly created National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation, with a direct connection to the prime minister’s office similar to that enjoyed by the already conceived chief science adviser’s role, which is currently being filled. It is also proposed that the chief science adviser lead a new “Four Agency Coordinating Board”. Many of the report’s recommendations establish mandates for these two bodies, including thorny issues such as rebalancing funding between investigator-initiated and priority-driven research, and between social sciences/humanities and science and engineering.

The delayed release of the report bought the Liberals time. They may forge ahead with creating the coordinating bodies as it is hard to imagine they would face opposition in seeking to rationalise Canada’s funding system. The real litmus test, though, will be how they respond to the recommendations that require financial commitments and meaningful changes to how funds are allocated. These are questions that may only be fully answered by their 2018 budget.

Creso Sá is professor and director of the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education at the University of Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @creso_sa.

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