During a recent interview, the current federal Minister for Innovation, Science and Economic Development, noted that investment in science is not a photo, but rather a film. But for those of us who have been watching this film over the years, the movie seems stuck in a loop. And the ending remains disappointing.
In his interview with Le Devoir, the Minister was also asked to comment on the the report from the advisory panel –appointed by both him and the Minister of Health– examining the federal research support system in the country (the mandate covered the academic community only – federal labs and research institutes are another matter). The Minister went on to underscore that the government would continue to invest in science as it has since 2016, and he added: ‘the past is an indication of what the future holds’.
Good to know.
Meanwhile, the past’s rhetoric has yet to catch up with today’s reality.
Numerous reports from groups and advisory committees have made clear the urgent need to invest in our younger generation of knowledge workers and researchers in the country’s academic institutions in order to avoid another brain drain, not to mention addressing the costs of inflation for research students trying to make ends meet. The Support our Science march across the country that took place on May 1, 2023 was just the latest attempt by next generation talent to prod some action in properly addressing the financial challenges faced by the country’s critical talent pool.
There is more. The House of Commons Standing Committee on Science and Research is currently tackling this matter as well with hearings on the subject. And in its earlier October 2022 report on top talent, the Parliamentary Committee outlined a number of recommendations focused on the immigration process for top talent; the standard of living for students; the challenges facing early-career researchers; equity, diversity and inclusion; retaining talent in the regions; and the role of college-level institutions.
Its thirteen recommendations included some key ones which should be embraced by the government; notably that the Government of Canada review and increase its investments in fundamental research through increases in the budgets of the three federal granting councils. (Provincial funders were not on the agenda).
Other recommendations from that Committee argued for the government to increase the number of scholarships and fellowships to graduate students and post-doctoral researchers, as well as increase their value by 25% to reflect increases in cost of living since their last adjustment in 2003 and index the amount to the consumer price index.
Additionally, the report stressed that the government should consider other compensation mechanisms for students to attract and retain top talent, such as tuition cost coverage and increased employment opportunities for both international students on student visas and students receiving federal grants. Of particular note, the House Committee suggested that the government amend the granting council acts: to include student representatives on the governing councils of these three institutions, and that the Government of Canada develop a new research funding program specifically for early-career researchers administered by the granting councils.
But then, along came the March 2023 budget, and little– apart from some needed funding for colleges, CÉGEPs and vocational institutes–- was acted upon. In a rare statement subsequently sent to the Prime Minister and to all opposition party leaders, the outgoing Universities Canada President Mr. Paul Davidson raised an advocacy voice pointing out the deep disappointment of the university sector with the lack of investments in research, international education or student mental health.
The statement also made mention of the advisory panel report on the federal research support system chaired by Frédéric Bouchard of the Université de Montréal that had been tabled prior to the budget. This report (which, oddly, has no title), echoed some of the earlier 2017 David Naylor advisory panel recommendations on federal support for fundamental science, including the need to significantly increase federal investments in the granting councils. The Bouchard advisory panel also notes that: These new investments need to address the pressures resulting from the growth in the research ecosystem (increasing number of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows), the effects of inflation and the importance of nurturing globally competitive research, including the talent base. As an initial step, the government should commit to an increase of at least ten percent annually for five years to the councils’ total base budgets for their core grant programming. The required level of additional investment should be determined in consultation with the proposed advisory body based on international benchmarking.
The Bouchard report received considerable airing at a meeting in Montreal on May 10, 2023 during the 90th annual conference of Acfas. The advisory panel made other recommendations–-all worthy of urgent attention from policy makers, but fundamentally, the key issue lies in the fragmentation of the research funding envelope and its governance. Urgent recommendations are made for a new Canada Science and Knowledge Foundation as well as a national science, research and innovation strategy to establish a common vision and objectives for Canada’s research and innovation ecosystem and to achieve greater alignment across the players in the ecosystem.
If this sounds like a familiar film score, it should. In 1987, the federal, along with provincial and territorial governments signed off on a National Science and Technology Policy: the first ever– and sadly, the last such national strategy. Indeed, that exercise, following extensive consultations across the country with numerous stakeholders, would eventually lead to a national summit chaired by the then Prime Minister leading to the establishment of a Council of Science and Technology Ministers across all jurisdictions and aligned with a series of consultative meetings via a National Forum of Science and Technology Advisory Councils.
A former federal S&T minister summed up the 1987 national strategy well: “If European nations have found it necessary to join their efforts in order to use S&T to maintain prosperity, it seems that our ten provinces, and territories, and a federal government must also see the need to join efforts. Why should Canada not be able to match the efforts of the best?”
Three decades later, numerous studies, analysis, testimony, reports, walkouts and protests continue to shed light on financial issues and the associated structural and leadership weakness with regard to investing in new knowledge, skills development and path breaking research.
However, there remains a key omission in this film script. At the end of the day, while new organizations and programs have and are still being proposed, the conditions for success will ultimately reside in much needed leadership and a shared vision recognizing a need for supporting next generation talent as key to a resilient and future-oriented society.
Fortunately, there are seeds being planted to make this happen that may help edit the film with a more satisfying ending. One is the global competition for talent, and the growing experimentation with new governance and funding models for science, knowledge and innovation competition across the world. There is much to be said about experimenting with new policies and strategies, linking partnerships and learning from others.
Another trend is the growing interest of a new cohort of business and research savvy young talent, not to mention a politically activist school of next generation science policy councils. Today, a knowledge-thirsty next generation cohort is seizing the moment to raise alarms over the lack of serious policy responses to demands for increased support throughout the research and knowledge ecosystem. For example, a newly formed science policy group is bringing together youth and science advocacy organizations to lobby for change, while articulating a new vision for Canada’s science culture. Indeed, one recent assessment from the Chief Science Advisor’s Youth Council offers up several perspectives and suggested actions to address these emerging challenges, and Quebec’s Chief Scientist has a statutory Intersectoral Student Committee common to the boards of directors of the Fonds de recherche du Québec (FRQ) which has produced several public reports on emerging issues shaping research.
It helps that our elected officials across the country and across party lines are paying a bit more attention to these critical issues where science, sound knowledge, and research with strong citizen engagement have actively shown how to help tackle crises and challenges — be they pandemics, climate, health issues, and other emergencies, as well as advancing knowledge for future social, environmental and economic development. But is it not time to act and support the ‘cri d’alarme’ raised by the Bouchard report, the youth science and STEM groups as well as Parliamentary Science and Research Committee hearings and reports, among others? These all deserve national and urgent implementation with strong leadership and a clear-eyed vision for future-proofing our societies through sound knowledge and research with and for our citizens..