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Basic science needs better oversight and coordination, and more money: Expert panel

Mark Henderson
April 12, 2017

R$ talks to David Naylor

 

A federally commissioned blue-chip panel calling for greater coherence and financial support for fundamental research has made a series of 35 recommendations, including a $1.3-billion increase in the budgets of the three granting councils, the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and related entities over the next four years. The panel urges action on several fronts to counter the drift towards priority-driven research and the proliferation of small programs and organizations that fracture finite resources and make navigation of the federal ecosystem complex and time-consuming.

Released April 10 before a capacity crowd of more than 200 high-level members of the research and innovation community in Ottawa, the report — Investing in Canada’s Future: Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research – recommends replacing the Science, Technology and Advisory Council (STIC) with the more comprehensive and powerful National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation (NACRI).

Rather than call for drastic changes to the composition of federal programs, NACRI is intended “to provide broad oversight and advice and foster coordination of the federal research effort”, as well as advise on simplifying and rationalizing programs that have proliferated over decades.

Working in conjunction with the forthcoming Chief Science Advisor (CSA), both bodies would report to the prime minister and PMO in addition to the Science minister.

“It’s a mechanism for coherence and the smartest way forward if we want to declutter the funding landscape. NACRI (like STIC) would offer private advice to government but it would also have a mandate to report publicly,” says former Univ of Toronto president Dr David Naylor, who headed the expert panel. “We’re trying to re-balance the landscape. Canada should not disengage from priority-driven research but we have to support independent work that doesn’t require those preconditions.”

Another proposed body — tentatively titled the Four Agency Coordinating Board — would coordinate activities of the three granting councils and the CFI. The CSA-chaired group would act as an “executive board with full authority to oversee coordination and collaboration across the four agencies” and report to the ministers of Science and Health. The board’s concept drew upon “advice given in the 1970s”, the report notes, as well as a 2006 governance review of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council that was commissioned by Industry Canada (now Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada).

Naylor says some early coverage of the report, and the NACRI recommendation specifically, have been described as another layer of bureaucracy — a notion he soundly rejects.

“It’s ill-informed and misconstrues the problem. The four pillar entities (the granting councils and CFI) are not in need of consolidation,” he says. “To de-clutter you need stronger evaluation and coherence. There’s a problem with public discourse in this country. Canada seems to be unable to talk about research and science without connecting it to innovation.”

Naylor is optimistic that this report — like so many others over the past 15 years — will not gather dust on a bureaucrat’s shelf. Without bold action, he warns of serious repercussions in the years ahead when Canada’s research pipeline is overtaken by other nations who are aggressively supporting their fundamental research.

“While we like to think of Canada as a smallish nation that punches well above its weight, the comparison here to other relatively small nations suggests a different story,” says Naylor. “Canada is starting to stall relative to other peers.”

The panel’s recommendations for new governance structures is raising questions about the government’s ability to enact so much change so quickly. Years of cost containment and reduced policy capacity are real issues that need to be confronted with measures like the pilot fellowship program introduced by Mitacs last year. The program embeds fellows and faculty in government departments to boost policy strength.

“It’s all well and good to have a science advisor and a NACRI structure but you need to have the capacity to be able to deliver on it — people who have some background in this area, who understand the dynamics of it and get the picture of the national landscape writ large,” says Paul Dufour, an adjunct professor at the Univ of Ottawa and an expert on the history of Canadian science policy. “I hope the national landscape issue will be addressed with the right people and the right resources. Unfortunately, we don’t have a large training infrastructure like they have in the UK or elsewhere.”

Restoring federal support for academic research

[rs_quote credit="Naylor report, 2017"] Gains in funding per researcher made in the first few years of the 21st century were completely reversed by 2013 in real per capita terms. Shifts in funding towards targeted or priority-driven research, rather than independent or unfettered research funded through open competitions, compounded these changes, such that basic researchers faced a drop in the available funds on the order of 35% on a per capita basis.[/rs_quote]

The previous Stephen Harper administration often touted Canada’s higher education R&D ratio (HERD) as the highest in the G7. The report notes however that Canada only ranks 7th in the OECD as of 2014 (and down from 4th in 2007) with a full 50% funded by universities themselves. Federal support accounted for just 23%, a relatively low portion that the report says is a “highly anomalous situation, and it is having adverse effects on both research and higher education across Canada”.

To increase the level of direct support for fundamental research, the panel recommends increasing the granting councils’ budgets by $485 million, starting at $20 million in the first year and $80 million for the next four years, with priority given to international collaborations.

While the report cites the Harper government as largely responsible for the decline in support for fundamental research, he says the current government’s latest budget does little to reverse the trend. Naylor describes the 2017 Budget's funding of smaller research and innovation entities that are no longer subject to cyclical reviews as “deplorable” particularly as there was little consideration of greater funding for the research base.

“Artificial intelligence (which was awarded $125 million in the Budget) is another government-derived plan. It’s probably a good idea but CIFAR is not a granting council so the decision (to have CIFAR manage the funding) makes very little sense,” says Naylor. “Smaller entities are tremendously adroit at perpetuating themselves. They build bridges and buy friends and they’re an enormous drain on resources.”

Naylor points to the Quebec research and innovation ecosystem and recent provincial Budget (see article elsewhere in this issue) as valuable examples of building a knowledge-based economy and society with fundamental research as a core component.

“(Quebec chief scientist) Remi (Quirion) was on our panel and we did pay attention to Quebec. Their latest Budget is a sharp contrast to the federal Budget and we need to pay attention,” says Naylor. “It supported multidisciplinary research and expanded funding for basic research. Quebec is more generous with supporting facilities and administrative costs as well as providing personnel awards and support for young researchers. It’s aligned with stronger jurisdictions globally and applies best practices.”

The next generation of researchers

The report also has much to say about bolstering support for early-career researchers (ECRs) and under-represented groups such as women and Indigenous people. Naylor says improving their success rate in research funding competitions “factored very strongly” in the panel’s deliberations and credits Science minister Kirsty Duncan for championing the issue.

To counter existing trends, the panel wants the granting councils to implement a life-cycle approach that considers researcher requirements at all stages of their careers, particularly the “valley of death” between entry-level researchers and those approaching mid-career. Options include pre-specified, higher success rates for ECRs, giving extra weight in every competition to first submissions.

“People over 65 have a lot to offer and are still very active but they do consume resources,” he says. “It’s been particularly rough for CIHR (Canadian Institutes of Health Research) researchers. We’re at risk of losing the next generation.”

 

Report Highlights

- Hold a First Ministers conference in 2017 to begin working through issues such as shared human resource planning and a more collaborative and consistent framework for research funding, including federal-provincial/territorial matching programs.

- Acknowledge CFI as the “fourth pillar of federal support for post-secondary education research” and provide the arm’s length organization with “a stable annual budget scaled at minimum to its recent annual outlays”, in addition to a $300-milion capital budget.

- Mandate and fund CFI to increase its share of the matching ratio for national-scale major research facilities from 40 to 60%, and provide individual researchers with small capital awards to meet their operating needs.

- Enable the Networks of Centres of Excellence program to foster collaborative multi-centre strengths in basic research in all discipline. This would open opportunities for smaller-scale networks focused on fundamental research and greater participation for researchers in the social sciences and humanities.

- Merge Compute Canada and CANARIE and provide the new organization with long-term funding and a mandate to lead in developing a national digital research infrastructure strategy. Compute Canada and CANARIE are currently funded separately, operate independently, and report to separate boards of directors.

- Mandate the granting councils to encourage and better support high-risk research with the potential for high impact.

- Gradually increase funding for Research Support Fund (indirect costs) to 40% — a recommendation that has been made in numerous reports for many years.

Fundamental Science Review Recommendations

i) Conduct a wide-ranging, multi-departmental review of innovation-related programming

ii) Create a National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation (NACRI)

iii) Phase out the Science, Technology and Innovation Council

iv) Appoint the new Chief Science Advisor (CSA) as NACRI vice-chair

v) Ensure NACRI has a “publicly acknowledged working connection” to prime minister/PMO

vi) Privy Council Office and CSA to examine mechanisms to improve whole-of-government coordination and collaboration of intramural research and evidence-based policy making

vii) CSA should convene special standing committee on major science facilities to advise NACRI and Government of Canada

viii) Establish “Four Agency Coordinating Board” chaired by CSA for the granting councils and Canada Foundation for Innovation; reporting to Science and Health ministers

ix) Comprehensive review of the four agencies supporting extramural research to modernize and harmonize their legislation

x) Ask NACRI to review funding allocation across the granting councils with particular attention on program changes that “adversely affected the funding opportunities for scholars in the social sciences and humanities”

xi) Direct Four Agency Coordinating Board to develop and harmonize funding strategies across the agencies using a lifecycle approach

xii) Four Agency Coordinating Board should create mechanism for harmonization and practice continuous oversight and improvement of peer review process

xiii) Four Agency Coordinating Board should develop consistent and coordinated policies to achieve better equity and diversity outcomes in allocation of research funding

xiv) Four granting agencies should examine best practices for supporting early-career researchers

xv) Federal ministers should consider hard targets and quotas where unacceptable disparities exist

xvi) Tri-council strategic plan to promote and provide long-term support for Indigenous researchers and communities

xvii) Mandate NACRI to review proposals to create new third-party organizations and assess activities of existing organizations

xviii) Matching funds should be used sparingly when the intent is to support independent research

xx) Rapidly increase investment in independent investigator-led research to redress current imbalance

xxi) Direct Four Agency Coordinating Board to amend terms of the Networks of Centres of Excellence program to foster collaborative, multi-centre strength in basic research

xxii) Direct the granting councils to undertake an interim review of the CFREF program to determine whether to launch or defer a third competition round

xxiii) Four Agency Coordinating Board to develop strategies for strengthening international partnerships and multidisciplinary research

xxiv) Mandate granting councils to develop joint mechanism for funding research in support of fast-breaking issues

xxv) Provide CFI with stable annual budget “scaled at minimum to its recent annual outlays”

xxvi) Require CFI to increase its funding share for major research facilities from 40% to 60%

xxvii) Merge Compute Canada and CANARIE with a mandate to lead in developing a national digital research infrastructure strategy and fund a new organization through the CFI

xxviii) Direct Four Agency Coordinating Board to oversee process to reinvigorate and harmonize tri-council scholarship and fellowship programs

xxix) Renew the Canada Research Chairs program by restoring funding to 2012 levels, allocate funding asymmetrically in favour of Tier II chairs, cap renewals of Tier I chairs and boost value of the chairs to “account for their loss in value due to inflation since 2000”

xxx) Gradually increase funding for Research Support Fund (indirect costs) to 40%

 

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