How can better federal-provincial collaboration strengthen Canada’s research ecosystem?
Organizers: Friends of Canadian Institutes of Health Research (FCIHR) and the Henry G. Friesen International Prize program
Speakers: Krista Connell, Chief Executive Officer, Nova Scotia Health Research Foundation; Dr. Janet Rossant, PHD FRS FRSC, President and Scientific Director, Gairdner Foundation; Marc LePage, President and CEO, Genome Canada; Dr. David Naylor, 2018 Friesen Prizewinner; Professor of Medicine and President Emeritus at the University of Toronto; Dr. Mona Nemer, Chief Science Advisor, Government of Canada; Dr. Michael J. Strong, President, Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)
Moderator: Dr. Gilles Patry, Executive Director, U15
“Our full potential in science will only be realized with a highly collaborative ‘Team Canada’ strategy”: David Naylor
The 2018 federal budget delivered a long-awaited boost for science in Canada. But if the country wants to make the most of these new investments, it needs the federal government, provinces and territories to do a better job at coordinating research funding and priorities.
That was the main message CSPC delegates heard from Dr. David Naylor, who chaired a blue-ribbon panel that in 2017 produced Canada’s Fundamental Science Review, also known as the Naylor Report.
Though this seminal report primarily focused on federal issues related to the funding, organization and oversight of extramural science, it also included several observations related to the interplay of federal and provincial/territorial (FPT) support for research, innovation, and talent development, notably:
Very limited FPT interaction and shared strategizing among senior officials on the science and innovation files
Obvious imbalance of financial support for research across Ottawa, the provinces, and institutions
Specific friction points: e.g., sharing of Facilities and Administrative Costs (also termed indirect costs), federal programs requiring Provincial or Territorial match funding without collaborative adjudication
Weak alignment on shared challenges such as research infrastructure/infostructure
Absence of a shared vision and national action plan for developing research-intensive talent
In Canada, research is a shared jurisdiction between the federal and provincial governments, one where the federal government has traditionally played a major role. But as Dr. David Naylor noted, “the interprovincial variation is dramatic in terms of how research is funded.”
The solution, said Naylor, is to make science “truly national” through greater federal-provincial-territorial [FPT] coordination, as well as better cooperation among provinces and territories, with the federal government contributing as both a facilitator and funder.
“You often hear that Canada punches above its weight [when it comes to science], but the reality is we make that weight ever smaller by being divisive,” said Naylor. “This regionalism is increasingly unhelpful, especially in areas like science, scholarship and inquiry where we need to pull together to make maximum impact.”
Naylor said provinces “frequently chafe” when a federal program they had little or no input into requires them to contribute a disproportionate amount of the matching funding for something that may not align with provincial priorities. Another flash point is the indirect costs of research.
“The institutions, and the provinces that support those institutions, are often put in a position of backfilling around federal grants, to keep the lights on and maintain buildings and libraries,” said Naylor.
Areas that would benefit from increased collaboration include harmonized funding for big science projects like digital infrastructure, as well as a shared vision and national action plan for developing talent and supporting researchers at all stages of their careers.
“Despite occasional laments that we have too many PhDs and researchers, the fact is that this country under-employs researchers and scientists” compared to many OECD peer nations, said Naylor.
Opportunities for FPT collaboration
Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, Dr. Mona Nemer, agreed that Canada’s future as an innovation nation depends on stronger links between all levels of government, including municipal. She identified three specific challenges in need of solutions:
How to develop national action plans in different areas (e.g. use of data in health research)
Defining “big science” and figuring out how operational costs be sustainably supported
“Talent development is a particularly vexing issue,” that would benefit from more FPT coordination, said Nemer. She noted that post-secondary institutions are growing their student ranks. That generates more PhD candidates, which in turn increase demand for physical space, more professors, and ultimately more federal research funding.
Recent initiatives are creating opportunities for better collaboration, said Nemer. The Digital Research Infrastructure Strategy, for example, has led to stronger connections between Ottawa and the provinces, and opened the door for better strategic planning, including funding for big infrastructure.
Having a national science advisor as well as provincial science advisors can also improve both communication and coordination, she added. “It takes those conversations out of the political realm.”
Dr. Michael Strong, the new President of the CIHR, encouraged delegates to read a new University of Toronto report on FPT coordination in research and innovation funding. A Delicate Balance identifies 7 coordination goals, which Strong described as logistical challenges that can be overcome with better engagement:
Avoiding or minimizing duplication and overlap
Avoiding program inconsistencies
Minimizing bureaucratic conflict
Ensuring coherence and cohesion
Agreeing on priorities
Improving the efficiency in the way funding is allocated
Promoting a comprehensive, “whole-of-government” perspective on the policy issue
One area where these approaches are working with is CIHR’s Strategy for Patient-Oriented Research initiative, which has established national collaborative research networks across the country. SPOR Networks involve researchers, patients, policy makers, academic health centres, health charities, and other stakeholders.
“SPOR is probably one of the most innovative programs we’ve done in this country to bring together federal, provincial and territorial partners – true partners where we’re looking at issues with regard to health care outcomes and how to we can make changes in real time that are meaningful to the population,” said Strong, adding, “We’re five years into a 10-year experiment where we’re starting to see results already.”
CIHR’s Health System Impact Fellowships are another example of effective FPT collaboration, said Strong. The fellowships provide doctoral trainees and post-doctoral fellows with opportunities to work with provincial health agencies and other non-academic health players to apply their research to critical challenges in health care.
Another success has been the National Alliance of Provincial Health Research Organizations (NAPHRO), which facilitates coordination, communication, strategic alignment and convergence, and quality leadership through interprovincial and national efforts. Strong said the group has identified barriers, for example, that will allow provinces and the federal government to begin planning now for the future human resource needs of each region.
“We are also looking at the tools that for the very first time will allow us to have the metrics that measure the needs within our population and do appropriate forward projections,” said Strong, adding that such data will help CIHR to set future priorities.
One of those priorities is ensuring students realize the opportunities of a career in research beyond academia. “I will bring no proposal forward to our government for funding that does not have capacity development embedded in it.”
The need for a national framework
If Canada wants to win future Gairdner or Nobel prizes, it needs “a coherent framework for research funding that sees granting agencies funding all research – from fundamental discoveries to application,” said Dr. Janet Rossant, who leads the Gairdner Foundation.
“We have a disruptive and disperse funding structure in Canada and Canadian researchers are very good at dealing with that mosaic but at the cost of potentially overlapping grant applications and a lack of clear national vision,” she told delegates.
Current and prospective research investors, including industry and philanthropy, should be part of that vision exercise, said Rossant. The Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, ON, for example, is a model for how industry, government and foundations can come together to support fundamental research.
Public-private partnerships are common in the U.S. In September, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan contributed US$13 billion to create the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which has the goal of curing, preventing or managing all diseases “in our children’s lifetime”.
“These are large sums of money being invested in basic, single cell biology,” said Rossant. “This idea of building linkages between donors, governments and advocates can help us come together in partnerships that can extend beyond our national borders to push against the boundaries of current knowledge and move us forward. But it requires vision and leadership.”
The time is ripe, she added, “to take a higher look at a truly integrated partnership between all levels of government and other partners, to develop a strategic process to identify projects of national and international importance where Canada can take a lead and where we will see the next Gairdner and Nobel Prize winners.”
The role of national programs
Instead of talking about federal programs, the focus should be on national programs that engage multiple partners from across the country on both research and innovation, said Dr. Marc LePage, President/CEO of Genome Canada, a national program that receives about $170 million annually – $70 million from Ottawa with the remainder coming from the provinces, industry and foundations.
To get there, you need “boots on the ground”. Genome Canada has six regional centres across the country.
“They are completely separate from Genome Canada,” said LePage. “They have their own boards. They’re anchored in their communities. Their job is to organize their communities, connect with their provincial governments and together we try to develop programs that are nationally coherent and very locally anchored.”
Genome Canada is able to respond to those regional needs – while also leveraging more funding and infrastructure – by supporting a broad range of genomics research, including health, agriculture and agri-food, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture, environment, energy and mining.
“We’re the only country where we have this integrated program,” said LePage. That integration has resulted in genomics technologies developed for health now used in agriculture and forestry, “and a lot faster than other competing nations,” said LePage.
However, he cautioned that transformative technologies such as genomics or artificial intelligence require research capacity in all regions because of the social and economic implications of these new technologies.
“We have to look nationally – how do we compete globally, but we also have to look regionally to ensure we have full access and full distribution of capacity,” said LePage.
It’s not all about the money
The big problems with Canada’s research ecosystem are the “result of a disjointed, ad hoc, incremental and often dysfunctional approach”, said Krista Connell, who brought a provincial perspective to the discussion as CEO of the eightteen-year-old Nova Scotia Health Research Foundation.
She explained that provinces, the federal government and federal agencies develop research plans in isolation of each other which has created different approaches to funding, peer review and competition processes, as well as overlapping timeframes.
Connell is also a founding member of NAPHRO, established in 2013 to help provinces better understand the federal research ecosystem and to identify common challenges and solutions. One success has been the adoption of a unified approach to health research impacts measurement, using the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences (CAHS) framework for measuring return on investment in health research.
“NAPHRO members collectively pooled their evaluation expertise and we developed a process for implementing and enhancing this framework for health research,” said Connell.
NAPHRO was formed in 2002 but it would take several years before its members were widely recognized for their expertise, contributions and strong links to provincial governments. Today, NAPHRO is a regular contributor to CSPC panels. It was also consulted as part of Canada’s Fundamental Science Review.
Connell urged federal players to engage NAPHRO to understand provincial challenges and priorities. More importantly, engage early in the development of new national programs to ensure alignment with regional priorities.
Those discussions are no longer limited to health research. Connell noted that many NAPHRO members are expanding their mandates to include more areas of research.
“Having conversations with us will go a long way to dealing with the FPT tensions... It is critical to understand that we do not just want to be at the table, we should be at the table because we can help improve things greatly.”