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2019 Budget Improves Governance for Ad Hoc Science Organizations

March 21, 2019
By: 
Daniel Banks
Canadian Neutron Beam Centre

Following landmark investments in the 2018 budget in response to Canada’s Fundamental Science Review, anyone who expected major new investments in fundamental science in 2019 was sure to be disappointed. This is not to say there’s nothing to be thankful for – indeed, there are a few additional investments and policy changes that will help students and promote equity, diversity and inclusion in the science community. Since there are no claw-backs to the multi-year increases announced in 2018, many scientists will experience increases to their funding in 2019.

From a science policy perspective, which is about how science is managed, as well as funded, the biggest change may be one item that had no dollar amount attached.
Budget 2019 announces a “new approach” for funding so-called “third-party science and research.” The Fundamental Science Review defined “third-party science entities” as those operating outside the jurisdiction of NSERC, CIHR, SSHRC, CFI. Genome Canada, Mitacs, and Brain Canada are a few examples.

The Review raised concerns, not with the quality of these organizations’ output, but with how they are each governed as one-offs, via term-limited contribution agreements with ISED. Ad hoc governance arrangements have been needed until now because these organizations don’t fit within the existing programs of the granting councils. Lack of a suitable program required scientists to lobby for funds, rather than participate in peer-reviewed competitions. Over time, the Review warned, this approach could “allow select groups of researchers to sidestep the intensity of peer review competitions, and facilitate unchecked mission drift as third-party partner organizations shift their mandates to justify their continuation.”

The new approach announced in Budget 2019 is to establish a “Strategic Science Fund” that will oversee investments in ISED’s collection of these agencies using a “principles-based framework” based on competitive, transparent processes. The framework will be applied by an independent expert panel to arrive at advice on funding for these organizations. Although the funding decisions will still be made by the Government, this will be a welcome improvement over the vagaries of political lobbying for funds.

There was no funding announced for the Strategic Science Fund. Indeed, no new funding would be needed if the intention is to pool funds from each third-party organization as their respective contribution agreements expire.

The Strategic Science Fund could be a precedent for another portion of the science community that faces similar challenges: so-called Big Science, or Major Research Facilities (MRFs), such as TRIUMF, SNOLAB, Ocean Networks Canada, the Canadian Light Source, and large facilities for astronomy or neutron scattering. In the absence of a systematic means of overseeing Canada’s portfolio of these shared national resources, an array of oversight mechanisms have been created for these facilities on an ad hoc basis, much like the case for third-party research organizations. The Fundamental Science Review was the latest in a string of reports that have pointed problems with this ad hoc approach, stretching back at least 20 years.

Stewardship of Canada’s MRFs has improved following the introduction of the CFI’s Major Science Initiatives Fund in 2012, and the expansion of its mandate to include more facilities under its program in 2014. Nonetheless, there are still many facilities that are not covered by this Fund. No agency has responsibility for the entire portfolio of MRFs to allow it to plan for the creation of new MRFs as others wind-down, or provide predictable funding over the life-cycle of an MRF. Other MRFs still fall through jurisdictional cracks, where no federal agency is clearly responsible for them. Such jurisdictional cracks were one contributing factor in the loss of Canada’s neutron scattering facilities in 2018.

Thankfully, there are indications from organizations such the CFI, ISED and the Office of the Chief Science Advisor that they are collaborating to consider a new approach to managing Canada’s portfolio of MRFs. With the leadership that the CFI has taken to fund operations of MRFs so far, and the Government’s commitment to provide much larger and more stable funding for the CFI in 2023 (announced in the 2018 budget), I believe the CFI is best positioned to take on the role of managing Canada’s portfolio of MRFs.

While Budget 2019 might not be remembered for its science investments, it does announce significant policy changes to improve governance of ad hoc science organizations — changes that set a precedent for a coherent and consistent approach to the funding and oversight of Canada’s Major Research Facilities as well.