A Step in the Right Direction for Major Research Facilities

May 22, 2019
Daniel Banks
TVB Associates Inc.

With the recent announcement of $160M to boost funding for “nationally significant” science facilities, Trudeau has continued to position himself as more responsive to the needs of the science community than Harper was.

Harper closed the Office of the National Science Advisor.

Trudeau began with appointing Kirsty Duncan as a full Minister of Science and mandated her to reinstate a national science advisor role.

Harper invested in industry-motivated research, but scientists in other areas felt under-valued, leading to protests against cutbacks and restrictions on speaking about their research.

Minister Duncan commissioned the Fundamental Science Review to help the government realize its promises to take a different approach to science.

Since the Review reported in 2017, Duncan has been working through implementation of its many recommendations for policy changes and for over $1B per year in funding increases.

Duncan’s announcement last week was the latest implementation, increasing the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s funding share of the operations of seven major research facilities from 40% to 60%.

Major research facilities, such as the research icebreaker pictured on the back of the fifty-dollar bill, provide unique capabilities that are part of a 21st century scientific toolkit.

Since these facilities are too expensive to be used by only a few research institutions, they are shared by hundreds of researchers across Canada, one of the reasons they are considered “nationally significant.”

But Canada lacks a coherent system for overseeing the major funding decisions required for creating and operated them.

As a result, the scientists that need these facilities waste a lot of time and energy on lobbying.

Politicians, in turn, are not qualified to judge the scientific merit of investing $100M in a major telescope compared to a big particle physics experiment.

In fact, sometimes new facilities have been built before the operating funds were found – a recipe for a national embarrassment.

Some major facilities still fall through jurisdictional gaps because no agency is responsible for them.

Such gaps were one factor leading to the loss of Canada’s neutron beam facilities, which relied on the NRU reactor in Chalk River.

Neutron beam facilities are national shared tools used for a wide range of materials research.

For example, researchers use neutron beams to answer questions about Alzheimer’s disease and vitamin E, develop clean energy storage for eliminating vehicle emissions, or improve reliability of our aging pipelines.

All other advanced nations have neutron beam facilities because they are versatile and cannot be replaced by other tools.

When the National Research Council (NRC) was restructured in 2012, operating such a facility for scientists from all over Canada was not aligned with its new mission.

So, NRC divested its neutron beam facility to Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd, which kept it open for several years, but it had no mandate in this research field beyond the NRU reactor’s closure in 2018.

No agency was left with the responsibility to obtain replacement facilities.

In response, a working group supported by 15 research organizations was formed to lobby the government to establish a new framework for this scientific capability.

The need for lobbying, when scientists would much rather compete with each other on merit, is a symptom of the wider problem that could be solved by collecting the major facilities under one comprehensive oversight process, as the Fundamental Science Review recommended.

The Review’s recommendation parallels the new Strategic Science Fund in Budget 2019, which is for a second set of science organizations that have operated outside normal funding channels: Genome Canada, and Brain Canada, for example.

The Strategic Science Fund collects all these organizations under one competitive funding program in which they will be evaluated by independent experts according to fixed criteria – no more lobbying required.

The increase in funding announced last week signals that the federal government accepts its leadership responsibility for major facilities, and could be a step toward the Review’s recommendation on their oversight.