Parsing the Trudeau Government’s Approach to Science: Boldly Go!
Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, Sinai Health System
Director of Research
Justin Trudeau made clear in his letters of mandate to Ministers, as well as later in his government’s inaugural budget, that he intended a new era for evidence in government decision-making. There were also hints to changes in the way the government approaches support of science. These included a promise to appoint a Chief Science Advisor, to unmuzzle scientists, and to reinstate the long form census. In the budget, the newly appointed Minister of Science (first good sign), Kirsty Duncan, was tasked with the Chief Scientific Advisor appointment and to convene a panel to report on federal support of fundamental science (www.sciencereview.ca). This panel, chaired by David Naylor, is expected to report by the end of 2016/early 2017. The timing, while rapid, is very unlikely to have financial impact in the Spring 2017 budget, much to the chagrin of many researchers. But that was not its mandate. Nor is the mandate of the Chief Science Advisor to advocate for science or scientists. Instead, her/his role will be much more important. It is to advise government of scientific evidence in support of discussion of policy issues. This does not mean the evidence will necessarily sway policy decisions as there are many other factors at play, but it will, at the very least, provide for informed discussion.
So what recommendations might we expect from the Naylor panel? As an aside, my input to this panel is available here.
Let’s start with some possible clues. Firstly, the panel itself is comprised of an august selection of people from across the country. There are few working scientists but their collective experience and scope is impressive. Secondly, there have been upwards of 1250 submissions to the panel. The first phase was open ended and this was followed up with more directed questions aimed at various categories of people from researchers to administrators to anyone with interest in how science is conducted. In addition, the panel members met with various delegations representing students, fellows, faculty and institutions (universities, hospitals, private sector, etc.). It will surely be daunting to aggregate this amount of input and it will be impossible to please even a small fraction of those consulted. But that’s not the panel’s aim. Nor is it their mandate to micromanage and delve into the detailed elements of each agency. Instead, the panel is tasked with a broader assessment. The last time the government took a good look at how Canada organizes and supports its science was in the mid-1990s and those consultations resulted in the birth of new agencies and programs such as CFI, CRCs, CIHR and the federal indirect costs program. We should assume the next opportunity will not be for another couple of decades, hence there is a lot of responsibility placed on this panel.
Here’s what I hope their recommendations will address:
1. A single science tent. Canada’s scientific performance is generally viewed well on the international stage but it’s many instruments for funding are overdue for rationalization. The tricouncil model works well but is constrained by the 2:2:1 budgetary format and each agency has put up Trumponian walls in response to declining allocations of funding. This is not how the most successful science is done. There need to be channels, bridges and tunnels between these agencies and incentives to work together. Aside the NRC, collapse all other science agencies into the tricouncil model to ensure predictable and consistent funding for longer-term programs. Graft Genome Canada onto the agencies as a large science management arm – this is what it does best. And we can drop the name as they’ve been widely successful in insinuating genomics into all matters of science. Likewise, graft CFI as the infrastructure arm. This is a well run and adaptive agency which also leverages funding from reluctant provinces – increasing the science budget. But it needs connection to the operational side of research and this can only be done by closer coordination. The above model may take hints from the Nurse report on UK science – with an oversight structure that has the tricouncils, infrastructure and large projects as its delivery programs.
2. Regain trust in research. To compete internationally, Canada cannot rely on sheer volume or dollars. We need to differentiate from others, to explore and experiment with new environments to foster research. Science flourishes with creativity, but this is an ephemeral characteristic. Moreover, our funding distribution systems tend to quickly select for uncreative behaviours. Scientists rapidly learn what they need to do to convince their peers to award them funds – and it is not by taking risks and proposing novel ideas or taking a long view. Instead, they want to keep their jobs and grow their laboratories and package their science in short term quanta. This leads to progress and is certainly productive (as judged by papers and other academic metrics), but how can we incentivise even greater creativity? I think this can only be achieved by offering alternative science ecosystems. A model is the Perimeter Institute or Janelia Farm (operated by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute). Surely we can afford similar experiments in biology, chemistry and other sciences?
3. Sow many seeds. Related to the constraints of research funding, much of science is clustered in fashionable areas. There are few standouts such as stem cells, nanotechnology, oncolytic viruses. Our tendency is to build on these because of their success. This can create artificial economies where scientists with a given interest may serve that interest. At some point, the group-think can become deleterious – both by the opportunity cost of suppressing resources for newer areas and by exhaustion of ideas. Indeed, Canada is too small to make a few large bets because it is the nature of science to offer returns that are unpredictable and rare. Instead, we need to maintain diversity. This is particularly important for younger researchers. They tend to fare particularly poorly in the current systems and struggle during what is often considered their most production career phase. Now is the time for a funding vehicle that is specifically directed to new investigators – that sets them up for up for the critical first 5 years. This would be a far more effective use of funds in attracting the world’s brightest than the Canada Excellence Research Chair program.
4. Open (up) science. Who is science for? Our society is better equipped if we are educated to understand how to apply scientific principles to decisions. It is not just our politicians who are likely to make better policies by assessing the scientific evidence. Rather, open-mindedness, willingness to seek additional information, to question assumptions and to be able to logically defend actions empowers individuals. Why then, do we allow students to opt out of science at a relatively early age during high school? Shouldn’t at least one science course in university/college be expected? We must also reverse the increasing trend of postgraduate education in science to extend its timing. 7 year PhDs and multiple postdoctoral fellowships hurt both the trainee and the discipline as they begin look elsewhere for careers. Many academics hold on to the arrogance that they are meant to train the next generation of academics, yet the “alt-career” is now academic science. This is a wonderful opportunity and programs such as Mitacs and others are helping bright minds to navigate into new opportunities, often far from the ivory towers. And as an obligate requirement, all research products must be openly accessible to all.
That’s my wish list for Santa Naylor, but, to be honest, if they are bold and decisive and have other strong ideas, all the better. What I fear is that the panel will defer to gentle refinements of the existing morass of federal funding support mechanisms. If so, it will not only be a missed opportunity for a generation, it will send a chilling message to the country’s most talented researchers that Canada is not back when it comes to science.