Pressure grows to increase support for fundamental research, tie funding levels to demand

Mark Henderson
July 12, 2017

Canada’s support for fundamental research has fallen by a third between 2005 and 2015, but many in the Canadian research community are concerned the federal government doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to take action. The deterioration in federal support — occurring over a period closely corresponding to the decade in which the government of Stephen Harper was in power — coincided with a major swing in funding from fundamental to applied research, with 40% of researchers reporting a similar shift in their focus.

The issue of underfunding was reignited with the release of the Canada's Fundamental Science Review in April, following a federal Budget in which fundamental science funding was noticeably absent. The review, prepared by an expert panel headed by former Univ of Toronto president Dr David Naylor, delivered a set of 35 recommendations including a $1.3-billion increase in the budgets of the three granting councils, the Canada Foundation for Innovation and related entities over four years.

In an interview with RE$EARCH MONEY, Science minister Kirsty Duncan denies she is delaying a response to the recommendations although she would not provide any specifics for how the government intends to address the weaknesses and shortcomings identified in the report.

“I commissioned this report (and) I thank that panel. They worked tirelessly,” says Duncan. “I released it at the Public Policy Forum (event). I did not bury it.”

Duncan says she agrees with the majority of the report’s recommendations with some caveats. She says she will work to “tackle the hard challenges” like equity and diversity and the challenges facing early-career researchers. Duncan says the recommendation to create a four agency coordinating board will make the system more “coordinated, harmonized and sustainable”. And she supports the creation of a National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation (NACRI) to replace the existing Science, Technology and Advisory Council (STIC) although she says “I don’t agree with how it’s been framed”.

“We know the system was cut very badly for 10 years, particularly fundamental science. Money was tied,” says Duncan. “The Naylor report is top of mind for me.”

The Naylor report’s April 10th release — more than four months after it was submitted to the government — has unleashed an outpouring of support for its recommendations. Groups such as Evidence for Democracy have urged Canadians to contact their MPs to support a full implementation of the Naylor report recommendations.

By far the most substantive complement to the Naylor report is that of the Canadian contingent of the Berlin-based Global Young Academy (GYA). Restoring Canada’s Competitiveness in Fundamental Research: The View from the Bench is aimed at decision makers and is the culmination of a survey of more than 1,300 Canadian researchers. Co-authored by Julia Baum of the Univ of Victoria and Jeremy Kerr of the Univ of Ottawa, it says the Harper government’s “disregard for fundamental research” threatened to “cut off the supply of new ideas that underlie an innovation-based economy”.

The data are stark. Support for fundamental research in the natural sciences and engineering fell 36% over the study period while social sciences and humanities suffered a 31% decline. No data exist for the health-related field but the report says the “numbers are believed to be similar”.

Even more surprising is the decline in the number of researchers who conduct fundamental research exclusively. The report found that the shift to applied research funding saw their proportion of the total number of researchers collapse from 40% to just 1.6%, while the number of researchers whose research programs were dominated by fundamental research declined from 75% to 58%. And a whopping 88% of respondents say their research includes external partners with “funding being the driving factor in the formation of these partnerships”.

“Concern and pessimism are among the worst cultural legacies of the Harper years. Researchers remember this time and many have no experience other than a partisan and manipulative process because that’s what they grew up with,” says report co-author Kerr, a professor and holder of the University Research Chair in Macroecology and Conservation Biology at the Univ of Ottawa. “We have to work against that to make a positive case.”

The GYA report essentially contains just one recommendation — linking research funding at each granting council to demand or the number of researchers in the Canadian system.

“Linking fundamental research funding at the tri-councils to numbers of researchers will also both increase and stabilize grant application success rates,” states the report. “Improving success rates for grant applications will also serve to increase the proportion of time that excellent researchers perform research, instead of preparing, submitting and often resubmitting grant applications to funding programs.”

“It’s tricky. A lot of people were forced out of the federal funding ecosystem but it’s not just about the money. There are consequences about what researchers can achieve for Canada and what directions they take,” says Kerr. “Older researchers had greater opportunities than ones who joined the system, say, three years ago. Funding is about half of what it used to be.”

$535-million funding gap

The GYA report concludes that Canada faces a funding gap of $535 million that has opened up between 2005 and 2015 $242 million for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, a similar amount at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and $71 million for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. And while Budget 2016 delivered $76 million in unfettered support to the granting councils, “an additional $459 million for research is justified and needed”.

The report suggests that there is a correlation between the decline in support for fundamental research and Canada’s falling gross expenditures on R&D (GERD). It notes that, roughly over the period covered in the report, GERD declined from 1.98% of gross domestic product to 1.61%, pushing Canada’s ranking among 34 OECD countries from 14th to 20th place. Not only is that well below the G8 average but it pales in comparison to leading R&D nations such as Israel and Finland that report GERD-to-GDP ratios of close to 4%. The report notes that data do not distinguish between fundamental and applied research but it does “reflect diminishing capacity for discovery and innovation across Canada’s research landscape”.

Unlike many in the research community, Kerr doesn’t fault the government for taking time to consider the recommendations of the GYA and Naylor reports.

“The government is doing exactly what it should be doing. They’re taking time to understand the report and develop a thoughtful response that is evidence-based,” says Kerr. “The research community is impatient so there’s an expectation of decisive action after a period of reflection. We don’t specify time frames for our recommendations. I’d be impressed if they responded in the (fall) economic and fiscal update.”


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