A clear call to move Canadian research forward

by Alan Bernstein and Janet Rossant Commentary 20.04.2017

(This commentary appeared online at the Globe & Mail).

We live in a world where the fruits of research are everywhere, from vaccines to cellphones to modern agriculture to transportation. Because of research, the average life expectancy of a Canadian born today is double what it was when the country was created 150 years ago. The social, health and economic benefits are so pervasive that it is sometimes difficult to see how important fundamental research has become to our lives. And discovery research is the fuel that drives the entire innovation ecosystem.

A country that aspires to increase the well-being of its citizens and the planet must have a research policy that organizes its research efforts optimally and devotes sufficient resources to ensure that research is thriving. That’s why the landmark report released last week and chaired by former University of Toronto president David Naylor should be compulsory reading for anyone who cares about our country and the future well-being of the world’s people.

 The report, commissioned last June by Canada’s Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan, provides a clear-headed diagnosis of the shortcomings in Canada’s fundamental research landscape and points the way to a solution. In addition to David Naylor, the panel included eight highly respected Canadian researchers, academic leaders and entrepreneurs.

The panel had its work cut out for it. Federal funding for fundamental research has been flat and effectively dropping for much of the past 12 years; the report documents a 35-per-cent drop in funding for investigator-driven fundamental research over that time period. The growing complexity of Canada’s research landscape, the increased focus on short-term outcomes at the expense of long-term fundamental research, the lack of co-ordination between the federal agencies responsible for funding research and the dangerous drop in success rates for securing funding, especially for young researchers, have been increasingly apparent over the past several years.

Many of the panel’s observations will come as no surprise to Canada’s research community. The majority of federal research funding comes through four “pillar” agencies – three granting councils responsible for the humanities and the social, natural and health sciences, and the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), given the task of funding research infrastructure. The report found that the agencies are unco-ordinated and inconsistent, with each agency having its own culture and setting its own policies and procedures independent of one another, and with no consistent strategy.

As a result, researchers trying to secure funds are faced with significantly different funding cultures, success rates and grant sizes depending on which agency they apply to. Furthermore, although it is widely acknowledged that research has become increasingly interdisciplinary and international, the four pillar agencies lack harmonized mechanisms for undertaking multidisciplinary research and, by and large, do not support Canadian research collaborations with colleagues internationally. (Funding for one of our organizations, CIFAR, is a happy exception).

The 35 recommendations by the panel are a good beginning. Importantly, the panel recommends that overall federal funding for fundamental research should increase by 9 per cent a year, from $3.5-billion to $4.8-billion annually over the next four years, and it provides a detailed road map of where those investments are most needed. The panel also addresses the issues around co-ordination of funding by proposing the establishment of two new oversight panels – a national advisory council on research and innovation (NACRI), to advise on funding priorities across all areas of federal investment, and a four-agency co-ordinating board, chaired by a new chief science adviser, to bring consistency to the policies and activities of the three granting councils and the CFI. Whether insertion of these new layers of oversight will have meaningful impact on the integration of the activities of the different funding bodies remains to be seen.

Canada’s future as a vibrant nation with a strong economy able to provide meaningful employment for its young people depends on a strong base of fundamental research. The recent excitement about artificial intelligence (AI) is a case in point: Canada’s global leadership in AI did not arise out of a targeted industrial program. Rather, it grew out of investigator-initiated fundamental research funded by CIFAR and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

The reputation of Canadian scientists as world-leading innovators depends on their support from federal granting agencies. Dr. Lewis Kay of the University of Toronto, one of this year’s Canada Gairdner International awardees, is a case in point. His fundamental research on nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, and its application for studying how molecules change shape over time, has helped develop new ways of targeting molecular interactions for drug therapy. Support for his state-of-the-art equipment from CFI and research support from NSERC and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) have been critical to keeping him in Canada.

Recent political events in the U.S., Britain and Europe have created a unique opportunity for Canada. We should seize it. The Naylor report, while it leaves many questions and details for others to address, could not have come at a better time. It provides an excellent road map for the government to modernize the Canadian research landscape, and it makes powerful arguments for the importance of fundamental research and a planned multi-year increase in the amount of funds Canada invests in it.

One thing is certain: In the global race for new knowledge and its applications for economic, social and health benefits, other countries will not wait for Canada to decide whether and how to implement the Naylor report. It’s now up to the federal government and its agencies, together with the research community, to move from consultations and reports to action. Canada must now move smartly to address the challenges, shortcomings and opportunities revealed by the report, and immediately begin working to solve them.

Dr. Alan Bernstein is President & CEO of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and was the inaugural president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Dr. Janet Rossant is President & Scientific Director of the Gairdner Foundation, a senior scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children and a professor at the University of Toronto.

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