Naylor recommends 'Team Canada' strategy to reach country's full potential in science

Debbie Lawes
November 28, 2018

The 2018 federal budget delivered a long-awaited boost for science. But the federal government, provinces and territories need to do a better job at coordinating research funding and priorities if Canada wants to make the most of these new investments.

That was the key message delegates at the Canadian Science Policy Conference heard from Dr. David Naylor, in his keynote address at a plenary session titled "How can better federal-provincial collaboration strengthen Canada's research ecosystem?" Naylor is well-known for chairing the blue-ribbon panel that in 2017 produced Canada’s Fundamental Science Review, also known as the Naylor Report.

Though Naylor's seminal report primarily focused on federal issues related to the funding, organization and oversight of extramural science, it also included several observations related to the interplay of federal and provincial/territorial (FPT) support for research, innovation, and talent development:

  • there was very limited FPT interaction and shared strategizing among senior officials on the science and innovation files;
  • an obvious imbalance of financial support for research across Ottawa, the provinces and institutions;
  • specific friction points such as sharing indirect costs and federal programs that require match funding without collaborative adjudication;
  • a weak alignment on shared challenges such as research infrastructure/infostructure; and,
  • an absence of a shared vision and national action plan for developing research-intensive talent.

Research in Canada is a shared jurisdiction between the federal and provincial governments.  One way to make science "more truly national", Naylor told the crowd at CSPC, is through greater federal-provincial coordination, as well as better cooperation between provinces and territories, with the federal government contributing as both a facilitator and funder.

“You often hear that Canada punches above its weight (when it comes to science), but the reality is we make that weight ever smaller by being divisive,” said Naylor. “This regionalism is increasingly unhelpful, especially in an area like science, scholarship and inquiry, where we need to pull together to make maximum impact.”

Areas that would benefit from increased collaboration include harmonized funding for big science projects like digital infrastructure, as well as a shared vision and national action plan for developing talent and supporting researchers at all stages of their careers.

Opportunities for FPT collaboration

Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, Dr. Mona Nemer, agreed that Canada’s future as an innovation nation depends on stronger links between all levels of government to deal with challenges, such as how to develop national action plans in different areas (e.g. use of data in health research), talent development and determining how operational costs for big science are sustainably supported

Talent development is a particularly vexing issue that would benefit from more FPT coordination, said Nemer. She noted that post-secondary institutions are growing their student ranks, but the resulting increase in PhD candidates simultaneously boosts demand for physical space, more professors and, ultimately, more federal research funding.

Nemer says initiatives like the Digital Research Infrastructure Strategy have led to stronger connections between Ottawa and the provinces, and opened the door for better strategic planning, including funding for big infrastructure.

Dr. Michael Strong, the new President of the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR), encouraged delegates to read A Delicate Balance, a new University of Toronto report on FPT coordination in research and innovation funding. The report identifies seven coordination goals, which Strong described as logistical challenges that can be overcome with better engagement:

  • Avoiding or minimizing duplication and overlap
  • Avoiding program inconsistencies
  • Minimizing bureaucratic conflict
  • Ensuring coherence and cohesion
  • Agreeing on priorities
  • Improving the efficiency in the way funding is allocated
  • Promoting a comprehensive, “whole-of-government” perspective on the policy issue

One area where these approaches are working well is CIHR’s Strategy for Patient-Oriented Research initiative, which has established national collaborative research networks across the country. SPOR Networks involve researchers, patients, policy makers, academic health centres, health charities and other stakeholders.

“SPOR is probably one of the most innovative programs we’ve done in this country to bring together federal, provincial and territorial partners,” said Strong, adding, “We’re five years into a 10-year experiment where we’re starting to see results already.”

CIHR’s Health System Impact Fellowships are another example of effective FPT collaboration, said Strong. The fellowships provide doctoral trainees and post-doctoral fellows with opportunities to work with provincial health agencies and other non-academic health players to apply their research to critical challenges in health care.

The need for a national framework

Greater cooperation could also increase Canada’s chances of being globally recognized for its research excellence, by developing “a coherent framework for research funding that sees granting agencies funding all research – from fundamental discoveries to application,” said Dr. Janet Rossant, who leads the Gairdner Foundation.

“We have a disruptive and dispersed funding structure in Canada and Canadian researchers are very good at dealing with that mosaic, but at the cost of potentially overlapping grant applications and a lack of clear national vision,” said Rossant.

Current and prospective research investors, including industry and philanthropy, should be part of that vision exercise, said Rossant. The Perimeter Institute in Waterloo is a model for how industry, government and foundations can come together to support fundamental research.

The time is ripe, Rossant added, “to take a higher look at a truly integrated partnership between all levels of government and other partners, to develop a strategic process to identify projects of national and international importance where Canada can take a lead and where we will see the next Gairdner and Nobel Prize winners.”

The role of national programs

Instead of talking about federal programs, the focus should be on national programs that engage multiple partners from across the country on both research and innovation, said Dr. Marc LePage, President/CEO of Genome Canada. To get there, you need “boots on the ground,” such as the six regional centres affiliated with Genome Canada.

“They are completely separate from Genome Canada,” said LePage. “They have their own boards. They’re anchored in their communities. Their job is to organize their communities, connect with their provincial governments and together we try to develop programs that are nationally coherent and very locally anchored.”

However, he cautioned that transformative technologies such as genomics or artificial intelligence require research capacity in all regions because of the social and economic implications of these new technologies.

“We have to look nationally: how do we compete globally. But we also have to look regionally to ensure we have full access and full distribution of capacity,” said LePage.

It’s not all about the money

The big problems with Canada’s research ecosystem are the “result of a disjointed, ad hoc, incremental and often dysfunctional approach,” said Krista Connel, who brought a provincial perspective to the discussion as CEO of the Nova Scotia Health Research Foundation.

She explained that provinces, the federal government and federal agencies develop research plans in isolation of each other, which has created different approaches to funding, peer review and competition processes, as well as overlapping timeframes.


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