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The Federal Budget Makes for Good Reading- Discovery Research is Back on the Agenda

March 29, 2016
By: 
Kristin Baetz, PhD

President of the Canadian Society for Molecular Biosciences
Director of the Ottawa Institute of Systems Biology
Canada Research Chair in Chemical and Functional Genomics
Associate Professor, Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology
University of Ottawa

I never thought I would say this, but Budget 2016 was an exciting read. After years of agonizing about the future of fundamental discovery research in Canada, there it was, an actual substantial increase in support for discovery research. I realized that Budget 2016 outlined a new important vision for the role of science in Canada; and at the heart of the Innovation Agenda was discovery research. 

It seems that the new Liberal government had heard scientists concerns about stagnant funding for discovery research in Canada.  I could see it in words: “the fundamental role of investigator-led discovery research in an innovative society”, but also in action - annual increases of $30 million for both the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). 

In tough economic times, $60 million is most certainly welcome. However the past decade has seen the downsizing and closing of labs across the country.  More importantly we have seen the narrowing of research interests to fit a funding envelope informed by commercialization rather than by true innovation.  The results are telling: technicians and research associates, the backbones of labs have been laid off; graduate programs report that fewer students are seeking scientific careers; grant success rates are at historic lows.  It needs to be said that $60 million is not enough, however, if this new infusions into the science budget are directed to the most competitive and innovative research funded by the open-operating grant competitions (NSERC Discovery Grants and CIHR Foundation and Project Grants) it will definitely help. 

Importantly, the increases were the “highest amount of new annual funding for discovery research than a decade”.  This is a clear message that the Liberal government knows the importance of fundamental discovery research if their ambitious Innovation Agenda is to succeed.  This is a great start raising my hope that there will be more substantial increases in the near future.

Even more inspiring than the money, was the announcement that Minster of Science Kirsty Duncan “will undertake a comprehensive review of all elements of federal support for fundamental science.”  This is where the reading got really juicy! 

Canadian scientists understand that they are beholden to the taxpayer to spend each dollar effectively and ensure federal support of discovery research is strategic and effective.   I applaud the Liberal Government and the Minister of Science for taking on this daunting task, which will no doubt reveal a complex web of competing interests.  But if Canada is to succeed with its Innovation Agenda, it must be done and it must be done right. 

This goes way beyond dealing with the quagmire of CIHR reforms that have made a bad situation worse by changing all parameters of the open competitions at once.  We all know there are a few simple solutions, but it is urgent to address this situation to ensure that Canada invests into world-class health research using a robust peer review process trusted by the research community.

Budget 2016 concisely outlines four major issues to be addressed by Dr. Duncan’s comprehensive review. The biggest one for discovery research has been the proliferation of targeted or speciality research funding programs that has occurred in recent years. 

‘Targeted research’ is a bit of a misleading term as not just government, but many scientists target their research to answer emerging societal challenges. One of the most compelling reasons to have well-funded open-grant competitions is to allow individual researchers to quickly re-direct their research programs. As new challenges arise, for example Zika virus, open-grant competitions allows the Canadian scientific community to react quickly. However, when the government seeks control over the public scientific discourse through the creation of new targeted funding programs, if this come at the expense of open-grant competitions, it erodes Canada’s research excellence and innovation potential.  

The proliferation of matching programs has placed addition burden on discovery science. We all have seen our colleagues on the chase for matching or in-kind dollars, worrying much more about ever more complex budget models than about the actual science. A lot of this seems ill conceived and I think that scientists should primarily care about what they are trained for and what will get the best return for Canadians, doing excellent science.

Can all this be done? Will the results of the review lead to true improvements for Canada’s research ecosystem?  With wide consultation of stake holders combined with arms-length independent international review and a government who is committed to the success of the Innovation Agenda, it can succeed. And it has to.

Budget 2016’s vision to build a more innovation country was an inspiring read.  Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan let’s work together to make it a reality.