Investing in young researchers to strengthen Canada’s future

April 19, 2017
Neha Bhutani PhD, Volunteer and Vanessa Sung, PhD Candidate, VP External Relations
Science & Policy Exchange

Neha Bhutani, PhD
Volunteer, Science & Policy Exchange (SPE),
Post-doctoral Researcher, Department of Neuroscience, University of Montréal

Vanessa Sung
PhD Candidate, Goodman Cancer Research Centre, McGill University
VP External Relations, Science & Policy Exchange

Funding basic research is investing in the future, as basic research leads to the production of new knowledge that provides a foundation for future innovation and education. It is, however, an expensive and long-term investment, and one that Canada has been moving away from over the past 15 years. This has been happening on two fronts: a major shift in federal funding away from independent investigator-led research towards “innovation-facing and priority-driven programs” and an overall steady decrease in federal spending on research and development (R&D).

As detailed in the first fundamental science review in 40 years, Investing in Canada’s Future: Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research, the research ecosystem in Canada is in a troubling state, with gaps in both “resource and aspiration”. Tellingly, the review reports that in 2015 the federal government contributed less than 25% of the country’s total spending on R&D performed at higher education institutions. Moreover, between 2006 and 2014, direct funding of fully independent research fell by an estimated 35%. Not only is Canada the only G7 country where R&D spending (as percentage of GDP) is in decline, worldwide (including non-OECD nations) we are no longer among the top 30 nations in total research spending. The effect of this drop in federal funding is reflected in a decline in total research output as measured by volume of publications, where Canada has slipped from seventh in 2005-2010 to ninth in 2009-2014 in global-ranking.

Beyond losing research competitiveness on the international stage, funding crises have real, negative consequences here at home felt by principal investigators down to trainees (students and post-doctoral fellows). Operationally, a lack of funding means that some professors are forced to stop taking on students. Those who continue supporting students find themselves in an endless cycle of writing grants, perpetually packaging their research into stories that sell.

For trainees, the effects of decreased funding are borne out in ways that are much more ominous for Canada’s future. The number of scholarships and fellowships awarded by the federal granting councils has not kept pace with the increased enrollment in doctoral programs, leading to a disproportionately small percentage of trainees receiving direct funding. As a result, not only are many PhD graduates leaving to pursue their post-doctoral training in other countries, Canada underperforms in attracting top international talent. Other graduates leave academia altogether, but a smooth transition into non-academic careers is hardly guaranteed. Last year, Science & Policy Exchange (SPE) convened a working group to produce a white paper on the Student perspective of STEM education in Canada, where students and post-doctoral fellows overwhelmingly identified a lack of knowledge of and preparedness for careers outside of academia as a major gap in their training. This lack of both training and funding support leaves Canada’s trainees in a particularly precarious position.

More fundamentally, there is a crisis of morale and aspiration among trainees. At SPE’s working group on STEM education, an oft-repeated sentiment was that while the dream is to pursue academic research in Canada, in today’s environment it would be foolish to do so without a backup plan. The reality check is served by their own experiences applying for funding and, even more soberingly, by the struggles of current early career researchers (ECRs). As the science review describes, “as grant success rates decline and funding is concentrated in more established researchers, ‘a valley of death’ opens up between early career and established researchers”. For trainees looking to make the transition to ECRs, these make poor odds. All of these factors culminate in the steady drip of young scientists out of the country or academia, a brain drain that will ultimately be disastrous for Canada if not remedied.

This fundamental science review and its recommendations have been overwhelmingly welcomed by the scientific community. A significant increase in the federal budget for science funding would indeed be a first step in the right direction to revive the Canadian research ecosystem. While increased funding is needed in both basic and applied research, there should be renewed commitment to supporting independent investigator-driven research. A rise in the number of scholarships and fellowships awarded would boost confidence among trainees and enable Canada to compete for young researchers at the international level. Funding strategies should consider the needs of researchers at different stages of their careers, with additional support for ECRs so they do not fall through the cracks.

The science review advisory panel, informed by the input of thousands of researchers nationwide, has laid bare a research system in disrepair but has also presented rational steps forward. We urge Minister Duncan and the federal government to act on the review’s recommendations in a timely fashion. It is well past time to re-invest in this country’s future leaders and innovators by creating a research ecosystem conducive to cultivating young talent in Canada.