A Review and Rx for Canada’s Research Ecosystem

May 8, 2017

By: Joelle Thorpe, Ph.D., Mitacs Canadian Science Policy Fellow

The views expressed herein are those of Dr. Thorpe and are not necessarily shared by any organizations with which she is affiliated.


Every single Canadian should care about the recently released Fundamental Science Review. If you’re unsure why you should care just consider, for a moment, an average day in the life of a typical Canadian:

Our Canadian wakes up to the sound of a radio alarm. After making a breakfast smoothie using her state-of-the-art blender, she gets in her car and drives to work using GPS to guide her around traffic jams. She remembers there is no milk in the house and uses her smartphone’s Bluetooth capabilities to call her husband to remind him to pick some up. Midway through her day, our Canadian develops a headache from looking at her computer screen for too long and takes some Tylenol to calm her pounding head.

At the end of the work day, she returns home and flops down on the couch to watch the news on her flat-screen television. The anchor tells her that: a new satellite has been launched into orbit, there are increasing concerns about finding a new antibiotic that is effective against antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and a new study has used genome editing to remove a faulty gene that causes a severe genetic disease.

After the news, our Canadian heads to bed. Before falling to sleep, she reads her new book, a historical analysis of the events leading up to World War I. As she drifts off to sleep, she wonders if someone, somewhere, could have predicted certain current world events by considering the precursors and outcomes of historical incidents in our past.

Most of us probably have days that are similar to the one described above; but some of us may not fully appreciate that days like this one would not be possible were it not for research. We can thank research for: our ability to harness electricity to power our gadgets, for cars, GPS, Bluetooth-capable smartphones, Tylenol, flat-screen televisions, orbiting satellites, bacteria-killing antibiotics, and genome editing that might one day allow us to eradicate certain diseases. We can also thank research for our historical knowledge and our appreciation of how this knowledge can be used to inform our present and our future.

While not all of us will be directly involved in creating new technologies, drugs, or laboratory techniques or thinking deeply and writing analytically about our history, each of us benefits from these endeavours. Without research, our lives would likely look very different, and I would be willing to wager, not in a good way.

I hope I have convinced readers why we should all pay attention to the Fundamental Science Review (or, more colloquially, the Naylor Report). This document, released to the public on April 10 of this year, was commissioned by the federal government as a first step in understanding the current state of the research funding ecosystem in Canada. After reading the report, it is abundantly clear that the panel of nine distinguished individuals chosen to lead this review, chaired by Dr. David Naylor, undertook this task with much rigour and assiduity.

The report is part diagnosis and part cure. By consulting with stakeholders from across Canada through roundtable discussions and written submissions (1275 of the latter!), and performing a thorough analysis of Canadian versus global research metrics, the Panel produced a list of what ails the Canadian research ecosystem. Using a set of 10 guiding principles for what a strong research ecosystem should look like, the Panel then prescribed 35 recommendations to cure these ailments afflicting Canada’s research ecosystem. Three diagnoses and their corresponding cures are discussed below.

Diagnosis #1:

Canada has gone too long without oversight and coordination of its research efforts. This has contributed to a complex funding system with overlapping programs, gaps through which “orphan” disciplines fall, and confusion and frustration among researchers trying to get funding for their research programs.

Cure:

Improve the oversight of, and coordination and collaboration among, the three federal funding agencies that provide funding to researchers across Canada in the natural sciences and engineering (NSERC), health sciences (CIHR), and humanities (SSHRC), and the federal funding agency that provides funding for research infrastructure (CFI).

Chief among the recommendations to improve oversight of the federal funding research ecosystem is the formation of the National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation (NACRI). The Panel proposes several responsibilities for this new advisory body, including providing non-partisan advice to the Government of Canada about federal funding for research, and evaluating the performance of the research ecosystem in Canada. Working closely with the new Chief Science Advisor, the NACRI would, ideally, improve oversight and coordination of the federal research effort and result in a more functional and efficient overall system to support Canadian researchers.

The formation of another body, the Four Agency Coordinating Board, is recommended to further facilitate and coordinate programs provided by the four federal funding agencies. The Four Agency Coordinating Board would work to coordinate all four agencies to streamline and align supports provided to researchers across all disciplines to simplify the process of applying for research funding and to ensure that increasingly important multidisciplinary research (research that crosses disciplinary fields and therefore falls under the purview of more than one of the federal funding agencies) is better supported.

Together, the NACRI and the Four Agency Coordinating Board should enable closer and more regular oversight of the research funding ecosystem in Canada and better coordination of the big four federal agencies providing research dollars to Canada’s scientists and scholars.

Diagnosis #2:

The funds available to Canadian researchers to do independent research not tied to a pre-defined priority has dropped by 35% between 2007–08 and 2015–16 in favour of funding for priority-driven research. Priority-driven research includes grant competitions for very specific research topics, which excludes some researchers from being eligible for funding. One example of this in the most recent federal budget is funding for research in prioritized areas such as artificial intelligence. Priority-driven research is important, but in recent years it has received more attention than independent research. Decreased funding dedicated to independent research can result in lower success rates in grant competitions (due to more intense competition), less money per grant being awarded, more time spent on applying for more grants, and an aversion to funding research projects that are high risk but potentially high reward. Furthermore, the Panel suggests that the decrease in funding available for independent research has had consequences on Canada’s research impact and output compared to other nations across the world—Canada seems to be falling behind.

Cure:

Boost federal funding, with an eye to evening out the imbalance between funds for independent versus priority-driven research. Specifically, the Panel recommends increasing the funding for investigator-led research by $485 million over four years. It is their hope that through increased funding available for independent research Canada can regain steam on the world stage as a research leader, and all Canadians can benefit from the new knowledge produced as a result.

Diagnosis #3:

Demographic trends and limited available funds have contributed to negative impacts falling disproportionately on early-career researchers (ECRs). The elimination of mandatory retirement has meant that highly productive baby boomers have remained in their positions at universities and research hospitals. Reduced funds available for research grants has also meant that competition for funding is fierce across all federal research funding agencies. ECRs, who have less leadership experience, have trained fewer highly qualified personnel, and have a smaller track record are finding it hard to compete with better-established researchers for a share of the dwindling pot of money.

Cure:

Immediately improve the success rates of ECRs in federal agency grant competitions through any number of possible strategies including dedicating a portion of funds specifically to ECRs, establishing a minimum success rate for ECRs in grant competitions, or adjusting grant evaluations to lessen the importance of certain elements that disadvantage ECRs in particular such as track record, leadership experience, and training highly qualified personnel.

In addition, the Four Agency Coordinating Board should harmonize strategies across all four federal funding agencies using a lifecycle approach such that researchers at all career stages, including the precarious early- and mid-career stages, are supported. This lifecycle approach may involve increasing success rates in grant competitions for ECRs as they are working to establish themselves and gradually decreasing success rates as they move through to mid-career and late-career stages.

Finally, to ensure that the strategies for improving supports for ECRs chosen by the four federal funding agencies are actually working, the agencies should track and publicly report the outcomes and make adjustments where necessary.

Regardless of the strategies chosen to improve the success rates of ECRs in granting competitions, more support for ECRs will be good for the research ecosystem as a whole. Ensuring that our ECRs are supported now will safeguard the research talent pool in the long term as the baby boomers finally do retire.

Final Thoughts

The benefits of research to our lives are so pervasive that it is easy to forget just how important research is to our quality of life. It is important to remember that in many cases the luxuries most of us enjoy in our daily lives are based on research done decades earlier, highlighting the importance of investing in research today to impact not only the lives of future generations but also our planet and the species that share it with us. If we don’t invest in our research ecosystem in terms of money and attention, it will flounder, and this impacts us all—even if this impact isn’t felt immediately.

As more countries around the world step up their research investments, the Naylor Report noted that “Canada is stalling relative to peers” and risks falling behind and becoming reliant on others to produce knowledge and new innovations. This also puts us at risk of having to rely only on external evidence (if it exists) to inform Canadian policies. This approach is not a recipe for a prosperous society and a world-leading nation.

Finally, as is mentioned in the Naylor Report, we also have an obligation as a member of the global community to support research. Research can improve lives around the world, including those less fortunate than us, and it can help address the challenges faced by the entire human race. As a wealthy nation, Canada has a moral obligation to contribute solutions to hardships around the world, and one way to do this is through generation of new knowledge through research.

The Naylor Report diagnoses the issues faced by our current research ecosystem and prescribes potential solutions to stimulate and foster Canadian research. In turn, a healthier research ecosystem might just lead Canada to a more prosperous future.

We should all listen closely.

Follow and join the conversation via #NaylorReport.


Joelle Thorpe spent many years studying many things, including hormones, parental behaviour, stress, and reproduction in furry critters. She recently stepped away from the lab bench to enter the exciting world of science policy. When she's not busy thinking (and sometimes writing) about how science and policy intersect, Joelle can be found with her nose in a good book. Connect with her on Twitter: @JoelleThorpe.


Filed Under: Science Policy

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