The release of the Report of the Advisory Panel on the Federal Research Support System comes at a pivotal time for Canadian science policy.
Ottawa must decide how the federal research support system will shape our country’s ability to respond to imminent and future challenges – climate change, global pandemics, sustainable economic growth, and equitable quality of life. In short, the federal government must decide how to position Canada in today’s rapidly evolving context of scientific and technological change.
The Advisory Panel’s recommendations provide a roadmap for addressing these challenges. However, underlying these recommendations is a larger issue that must be tackled, for it has become clear that the current federal research support system is no longer fit for purpose.
This is particularly true for decision-making on investment in Major Research Facilities (MRFs). The current state of research that relies on national infrastructure to produce neutron beams reveals the need to use the Report as an opportunity to go beyond the status quo and adopt a new paradigm in Canadian research infrastructure governance and decision-making.
To better understand this need, some background on governance and decision-making relating to MRFs is important.
Major Research Facilities in the Canadian research ecosystem
MRFs play a key enabling role within the Canadian and international Science, Technology, and Innovation (STI) ecosystems by concentrating major equipment and instrumentation for leading-edge research. MRFs also operate as user facilities accessible to a broad range of researchers; as such, they provide invaluable training opportunities for students and Early Career Researchers.
Moreover, MRFs in Canada have become hubs for national and international collaborations that have led to breakthroughs – such as the SNO experiment that resulted in a Canadian Nobel Prize in Physics in 2015 and Canadian neutron-beam experiments that provided the first evidence of topological materials, the subject of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2016.
Despite such accomplishments, the funding, management, and long-term viability of MRFs have suffered from the lack of a coherent and integrated governance framework. No single department or agency has the overall mandate for MRFs, so there is no long-term vision for building and maintaining them.
In addition, decision-making processes are ad hoc and fragmented. For example, the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s (CFI) Major Science Initiatives Fund cannot fund new major facilities, while its 6-year funding competitions prevent long-term capital and operational financing. This greatly restricts MRFs in planning for the long-term, investing optimally, and maintaining their infrastructure as state-of-the-art.
The question of how federal decision-making on investments in MRFs should be made is not new. It has been addressed in several reports over the past two decades, including the 2017 Fundamental Science Review. But we still see a fragmentation of efforts, a lack of long-term vision, and the need for robust and transparent governance.
The Advisory Panel’s recommendation to establish an MRF roadmap provides an opportunity to rectify these deficiencies. A roadmap would help policymakers and the scientific community take stock of the state of Canadian MRFs; identify gaps from a comprehensive life-cycle planning approach to be addressed as national priorities; and enable the future long-term requirements of the STI enterprise to remain internationally competitive.
To illustrate why an MRF roadmap enabling such outcomes is needed – and why a nationally integrated investment and management regime is so important at this juncture – the current state of research relying on national infrastructure to produce neutron beams provides a case in point.
Neutron Beam Research – towards a nationally integrated investment and management regime
Just as beams of light are used in a microscope to learn about materials, so too do beams of neutrons scatter from materials to reveal details that cannot be “seen” with other scientific tools. Bright neutron beams are versatile and irreplaceable tools for engineers and scientists all over the world who are advancing knowledge of and improving advanced materials.
Such innovation in materials underpins many technological advances for national priorities – such as clean energy production and storage, transforming manufacturing sectors to net-zero production, and developing more sustainable food supplies. Neutron beams also enable discoveries in quantum materials, essential in next-generation information technologies.
Bright neutron beams require centralized facilities at research reactors or large particle accelerators. In Canada, neutron beams were produced at Chalk River Laboratories, where Bertram Brockhouse conducted Nobel Prize-winning research in the 1950s and 60s showing the scientific value of neutron beams. The neutron beam lab, later known as the Canadian Neutron Beam Centre (CNBC), grew into a national user facility, attracting researchers from across Canada and from over 20 countries to conduct experiments there. Canadians have led this field for over 70 years, applying neutron beams to make major socio-economic impacts. Ensuring the safety and reliability of Canada’s nuclear power reactors, pipelines, and car and jet engines are just some examples.
But the CNBC fell victim to the lack of a framework for decision-making on MRF investments. Canada’s stewardship of CNBC failed to evolve along with its growth into an MRF that supported research across the country. Instead, it was governed as an add-on to infrastructure operated for other missions – first, nuclear power research and then medical isotope production.
Moreover, CNBC governance remained under federal agencies with no mandate to provide infrastructure to support extramural research. There was little reinvestment to keep CNBC as state-of-the-art and there is no institutional voice for its users. When the federal agencies responsible were restructured in the early 2010s, no institution remained to represent this research field and to plan for new infrastructure to enable CNBC’s continuance beyond its closure in 2018.
But now there is a new opportunity on the horizon. In 2022, 15 universities came together to create a new organization – Neutrons Canada – with a mandate to govern, manage and represent Canada’s current and future neutron beam infrastructure. To this end, Neutrons Canada has become the institutional steward of a long-range planning process to build consensus within the research community on how Canada could best invest to re-establish and operate a national neutron beam infrastructure program. As seed for the program, these universities have initially secured CFI funding for a $47M project at the McMaster Nuclear Reactor.
From Advisory Panel recommendations to action
The ground-breaking work of Neutrons Canada and its members – combined with the Advisory Panel’s recommendations – present a promising opportunity to rebuild Canada’s capabilities for materials research using neutron beams. In fact, Neutrons Canada could serve as the first test case of a new MRF in development. (Other candidates for the new framework – such as TRIUMF, CLS, VIDO-Intervac, and Ocean Networks Canada – are already operating as MRFs.)
The Advisory Panel on the Federal Research Support System has made a valuable contribution to STI policy. However, we must first get the governance right.
The federal government needs to demonstrate strong national leadership. A robust framework for investment, governance, and management of research infrastructure and MRFs is a critically important element of that leadership. The future of Canadian research using neutron beams, particle accelerators, ocean networks, genome-sequencing platforms, and data centre networks depends on that leadership.
It is time to turn recommendations into action.