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A Fallow Year for Science in Canada

March 29, 2017
By: 
Dr. Jim Woodgett
Director of Research
Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute

Last year’s Federal budget contained a number of significant dollar boosts for Canadian research but, more importantly, the language behind the funding signaled to researchers a change in government attitude. Indeed, the most important changes cost little – such as the establishment of a Chief Scientific Advisor and the ungagging of Federally employed scientists. Science, data and evidence were back, after almost a decade of policy where monetizing the products of science were given much more shrift than supporting scientific discovery. Perhaps the greatest portend of the new research-friendly policies was the launch of the Fundamental Science Review (www.sciencereview.ca) that was led by David Naylor. Indeed, this was timely as Canada’s Federal science programs had proliferated over the prior 15 years or so with no apparent consideration of the national scientific enterprise as a whole. In the US, science is federally supported by only a handful of large agencies (NIH, NSA, EPA, NASA, etc.) but Canada’s science support mechanisms metastasized from the initial tricouncils (NSERC/CIHR/SSHRC) to form a collection of more targeted programs that are relatively uncoordinated (e.g. most recently, CF-REF, CERC, Brain Canada, Vanier studentships and Banting fellowships). Indeed, their funding, in constant dollars, has been flat-lined, at best (I’m being generous), since 2007. I, for one, hope that the Naylor report will address this hairball of federal supports and offer recommendations for consolidation and a bold, integrative strategy going forward.

Perhaps anticipation of this report explains why there is no (or only passing) mention of the tricouncils, Genome Canada, Canada Research Chairs, and CFI - the big guns of federal support. These agencies support 90% of the non-Federal, public sector researchers in Canada and, in the majority of cases, is their only mechanism of operating funding. Along with this lack of attention came a remarkable freeze in funding. I use the word remarkable because even in the leanest of times since 2001, there was virtually always some top up for these agencies. There is some money for various programs with direct or indirect scientific connections (these are detailed in an excellent blog by Rob Annan. The “winners” in this year’s budget include $6 million to extend the life of the Stem Cell Network for a year, $35 million for CIFAR over 5 years, $125 million for Artificial Intelligence research and almost $1 billion for “innovation superclusters” that will have some academic component to them (I assume the latter two account for fawning budget announcements from Universities Canada and counterparts, despite the rebuff to the primary funding agencies). Overall, compared to the science agencies that carry the water for the large majority of Canadian researchers, these are side investments. This is not to say there aren’t some significant concerns about the operational effectiveness of the tricouncils. I’ve been a vocal critic of one. But the simple fact is that their persistent funding model and overall size means they are the de facto engines of science in Canada and they should be the predominant vehicle for adjudication of federal scientific funding. Notably, these agencies have peer counterparts around the world.

To me, the tricouncil oversight or freeze implies a worrying miscommunication and/or understanding. These agencies are specifically structured to allow for predictive continuity. Science is a long-term endeavor and many projects span longer than a single government term. For the granting councils, funding quanta to researchers can be over 1 to 7 years. In practice, this means that in any given fiscal year an agency has only ~20% of that year’s funds to commit to new projects. The bulk is committed to previously approved multi-grants. By holding funding at the tricouncils at last year’s levels, the financial hit will be focused on that 20% and will impact a significant cohort of researchers. Since inflation in science costs runs at 3-5%, in effect this represents a cut of the same magnitude. Indeed, there is much concern in the US over the Presidents’ proposed slash of 20% to the NIH budget (the dollar cut equals ~10X the annual CIHR budget). Yet, over the past decade, the tricouncils have endured a proportional cut greater than this. Moreover, restructuring of mechanisms that deliver science support programs should designed to not impact on-going research. This is precisely what went wrong with the ill-fated CIHR reforms which, as its President noted, was like changing an airplane engine while in flight. Again, WHY WOULD ANYONE ATTEMPT THAT?

You might be tempted to say: hang on Debbie Downer Jim, they’re just preparing for a big re-investment in science next year. I certainly hope so. The impact of BREXIT and the anti-science policies of the new US administration provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Canada to shine. Talented young minds used to flock to the US (and UK) to train and many stayed to form the fantastic science and innovation bases in these countries. With doubts hanging over the US H1B visa program, Canadian universities, colleges and research institutes are already seeing increased interest from overseas. Indeed, the Federal Science Minister, in an interview with Globe & Mail Science Reporter Ivan Semeniuk, pointed to this opportunity for brain gain. Yet, without actual funds to do actual research, what is the point of putting out a “Welcome to Canada” mat?

I sincerely hope we’ve not blown this opportunity, but news travels fast. Now is the time to be bold. The government prides itself in looking to the future, relying on developing Canada’s young brain resource to develop new industries and improve quality of life. Instead of delaying the Naylor report, its release should have been accelerated. It’s a report, not religious scripture, and will surely be a work in progress. Science moves quickly and is high risk/high reward. Treading water means losing ground. Hence, Budget 2017 was a missed opportunity to lay out a road map with details to be filled in, but with commitment to execute. Instead of laying out the framework for a scientific strategy for the next decade, even if only by promissory note, thousands of researchers are left wondering whether there is a future for them.

Let’s hope the government’s Fall financial statement takes corrective action.