Help Young Scientists, Provide More Funding, Improve Oversight Says Expert Panel as Part of Canada’s Fundamental Science Review

An independent expert panel tasked last June to review federal funding for fundamental science has released its final report, and it recommends increased funding for Canadian research, improving oversight, and steps to help young scientists.

David Naylor, University of Toronto was Chair of the panel. He said “this report sets out a multi-year agenda that, if implemented, could transform Canadian research capacity and have enormous long-term impacts across the nation. It proffers a legacy-building opportunity for a new government that has boldly nailed its colours to the mast of science and evidence-informed policy-making. I urge the Prime Minister to act decisively on our recommendations.”

Kirsty Duncan, the Minister of Science who initiated the review said “findings from the review will help our government continue to strengthen Canada’s international standing in fundamental science and capacity to produce world-leading research that improves the lives of Canadians. The panel’s recommendations will also help us support researchers and scholars so they are able to make the discoveries and innovations that improve our health, environment, economy and communities. As well, researchers provide students with the hands-on skills they need to become the next generation of nurses and doctors, engineers and entrepreneurs, teachers and scientists who will help build a strong, vibrant middle class.”

“I look forward to reviewing the panel’s recommendations and will continue listening to and engaging in an open and thoughtful way with Canada’s research community as we collectively work toward the goal of ensuring that federal support for fundamental research is strategic and effective and meets the needs of all Canadians.”

It remains to be seen what the government does now after such a large scale review, the first of its type in more than 40 years.

Mike Lazaridis, founder and Managing Partner of Quantum Valley Investments and one of the panelists said “science is the bedrock of modern civilization. Our report’s recommendations to increase and optimize government investments in fundamental scientific research will help ensure that Canada’s world-class researchers can continue to make their critically important contributions to science, industry and society in Canada while educating and inspiring future generations. At the same time, such investments will enable Canada to attract top researchers from around the world. Canada must strategically build critical density in our researcher communities to elevate its global competitiveness. This is the path to new technologies, new businesses, new jobs and new value creation for Canada.”

The Findings

  • Basic research worldwide has led to most of the technological, medical and social advances that make our quality of life today so much better than a century ago. Canadian scientists and scholars have contributed meaningfully to these advances through the decades; however, by various measures, Canada’s research competitiveness has eroded in recent years.
  • This trend emerged during a period when there was a drop of more than 30 percent in real per capita funding for independent or investigator-led research by front-line scientists and scholars in universities, colleges, institutes and research hospitals. This drop occurred as a result of caps on federal funding to the granting councils and a dramatic change in the balance of funding toward priority-driven and partnership-oriented research.
  • Canada is an international outlier in that funding from federal government sources accounts for less than 25 percent of total spending on research and development in the higher education sector. While governments sometimes highlight that, relative to GDP, Canada leads the G7 in total spending by this sector, institutions themselves now underwrite 50 percent of these costs—with adverse effects on both research and education.
  • Coordination and collaboration among the four key federal research agencies is suboptimal, with poor alignment of supports for different aspects of research such as infrastructure, operating costs and personnel awards. Governance and administrative practices vary inexplicably, and support for areas such as international partnerships or multidisciplinary research is uneven.
  • Early career researchers are struggling in some disciplines, and Canada lacks a career-spanning strategy for supporting both research operations and staff.
  • Flagship personnel programs such as the Canada Research Chairs have had the same value since 2000. Levels of funding and numbers of awards for students and post-doctoral fellows have not kept pace with inflation, peer nations or the size of applicant pools.

The report also outlines a comprehensive agenda to strengthen the foundations of Canadian extramural research. Recommended improvements in oversight include:

  • Legislation to create an independent National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation (NACRI) that would work closely with Canada’s new Chief Science Advisor (CSA) to raise the bar in terms of ongoing evaluations of all research programming;
  • Wide-ranging improvements to oversight and governance of the four agencies, including the appointment of a coordinating board chaired by the CSA; and
  • Lifecycle governance of national-scale research facilities as well as improved methods for overseeing and containing the growth in ad-hoc funding of smaller non-profit research entities.

The Recommendations

This list of recommendations is drawn directly from the text of the report. The first number refers to the chapter in which the recommendation appears, and the second to the order of appearance within that chapter. We caution again that recommendations should be reviewed and interpreted in context. Every recommendation is accompanied by a rationale in the body of the report. In most cases, additional text follows the recommendation to elaborate on it. Hence, to facilitate rapid reference to the context and elaboration, the title of each recommendation is an active link to the page of the report on which the recommendation appears.

Download the Report (PDF)

Recommendation 1.1
Consistent with the recommendation by the Advisory Council on Economic Growth, the Government of Canada should undertake a wide-ranging and multi-departmental review of innovation-related programming, including both direct and indirect supports for business research and development.

Recommendation 4.1
The Government of Canada, by an Act of Parliament, should create a new National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation (NACRI) to provide broad oversight of the federal research and innovation ecosystems.

Recommendation 4.2
The Science, Technology and Innovation Council should be wound down as NACRI is established.

Recommendation 4.3
NACRI should have 12 to 15 members, appointed through Orders in Council, comprising distinguished scientists and scholars from a range of disciplines as well as seasoned innovators with strong leadership and public service records from the business realm and civil society. Domestic members should be drawn from across Canada and reflect the nation’s diversity and regions.

Recommendation 4.4
An external member should hold the Chair of NACRI with the CSA serving as Vice Chair. NACRI should be supported by a dedicated secretariat working within the larger expert team supporting the CSA.

Recommendation 4.5
The Privy Council Office, working with departmental officials and the newly appointed CSA, should examine mechanisms to achieve improved whole-of-government coordination and collaboration for intramural research and evidence-based policy-making.

Recommendation 4.6
As a council of senior volunteers with a broad mandate of national importance, NACRI should have a publicly acknowledged working connection to the Prime Minister/PMO, parallel to that established for the CSA. NACRI should report to and interact most directly with both the Minister of Science and the Minister responsible for Innovation and Economic Development. It should also have open channels of communication with the Minister of Health and other ministers of key departments involved in intramural and extramural research.

Recommendation 4.7
A Special Standing Committee on Major Research Facilities should be convened by the CSA and report regularly to NACRI. The committee would advise NACRI and the Government of Canada on coordination and oversight for the life cycle of federally supported MRFs.

Recommendation 4.8
Ongoing interactions and annual in-person meetings should be established to strengthen collaborative research relationships among federal, provincial, and territorial departments with major intramural or extramural research commitments. The CSA, with advice from NACRI, should take the lead in promoting a shared agenda on matters of national concern, such as human resource planning to strengthen research and innovation across Canada.

Recommendation 4.9
The Government of Canada should propose and initiate planning for a First Ministers’ Conference on Research Excellence in 2017. The conference would celebrate and cement a shared commitment to global leadership in science and scholarly inquiry as part of Canada’s sesquicentennial celebrations.

Recommendation 4.10
The Ministers of Science and Health should mandate the formation of a formal coordinating board for CFI, CIHR, SSHRC, and NSERC, chaired by the CSA. The membership of the new Four Agency Coordinating Board would include the four agency heads, departmental officials, and external experts. Reporting to the Ministers of Science and Health, the Coordinating Board would expeditiously determine and implement avenues for harmonization, collaboration, and coordination of programs, peer review procedures, and administration.

Recommendation 4.11
The Government of Canada should undertake a comprehensive review to modernize and, where possible, harmonize the legislation for the four agencies that support extramural research. The review would clarify accountabilities and selection processes for agency governing bodies and presidents, promote good governance and exemplary peer review practices, and give priority to inter-agency collaboration and coordination.

Recommendation 5.1
NACRI should be asked to review the current allocation of funding across the granting councils. It should recommend changes that would allow the Government of Canada to maximize the ability of researchers across disciplines to carry out world-leading research. Particular attention should be paid to evidence that ongoing program changes have adversely affected the funding opportunities for scholars in the social sciences and humanities.

Recommendation 5.2
The Government of Canada should direct the new Four Agency Coordinating Board to develop and harmonize funding strategies across the agencies, using a lifecycle approach that balances the needs and prospects of researchers at different stages of their careers.

Recommendation 5.3
The new Four Agency Coordinating Board should create a mechanism for harmonization as well as continuous oversight and improvement of peer review practices across the three councils and CFI.

Recommendation 5.4
The Four Agency Coordinating Board should develop consistent and coordinated policies to achieve better equity and diversity outcomes in the allocation of research funding while sustaining excellence as the key decision-making criterion. This priority intersects efforts to improve peer review practices and requires a multipronged approach.

Recommendation 5.5
The federal ministers responsible should consider hard equity targets and quotas where persistent and unacceptable disparities exist, and agencies and institutions are clearly not meeting reasonable objectives.

Recommendation 5.6
The four agencies should examine best practices in supporting early career researchers, augment their support of them consistently across disciplines, and track and report publicly on the outcomes.

Recommendation 5.7
The three granting councils should collaborate in developing a comprehensive strategic plan to promote and provide long-term support for Indigenous research, with the goal of enhancing research and training by and with Indigenous researchers and communities. The plan should be guided by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations on research as a key resource.

Recommendation 5.8
NACRI should be mandated not only to review proposals to create new third-party delivery organizations, but also to assess ongoing activities of all existing third-party organizations that receive federal support. It should guide their formal periodic review processes and advise the Government of Canada on the continuation, modification, or termination of their contribution agreements.

Recommendation 5.9
When the intent is to support independent research, requirements for matching funds should be used sparingly and in a coordinated and targeted manner. In general, matching requirements should be limited to those situations where the co-funder derives a tangible benefit.

Recommendation 6.1
The Government of Canada should rapidly increase its investment in independent investigator-led research to redress the imbalance caused by differential investments favouring priority-driven research over the past decade.

Recommendation 6.2
The Government of Canada should direct the Four Agency Coordinating Board to amend the terms of the NCE program so as to include the fostering of collaborative multi-centre strength in basic research in all disciplines.

Recommendation 6.3
The Government of Canada should direct the granting councils to undertake an interim evaluation of the CFREF program before the third wave of awards is made. The CSA and NACRI should be engaged in the design of the review. The results would guide a decision on whether to launch or defer the program’s third round, but not impede the fulfilment of existing commitments.

Recommendation 6.4
The Government of Canada should mandate the Four Agency Coordinating Board to develop multi-agency strategies to support international research collaborations and modify existing funding programs so as to strengthen international partnerships.

Recommendation 6.5
The Government of Canada should mandate the Four Agency Coordinating Board to develop strategies to encourage, facilitate, evaluate, and support multidisciplinary research.

Recommendation 6.6
The Government of Canada should mandate the granting councils to encourage and better support high-risk research with the potential for high impact.

Recommendation 6.7
The Government of Canada should mandate the granting councils to arrive at a joint mechanism to ensure that funds and rapid review mechanisms are available for response to fast-breaking issues.

Recommendation 6.8
The Government of Canada should provide CFI with a stable annual budget scaled at minimum to its recent annual outlays.

Recommendation 6.9
The Government of Canada should consolidate the organizations that provide digital research infrastructure, starting with a merger of Compute Canada and CANARIE. It should provide the new organization with long-term funding and a mandate to lead in developing a national DRI strategy.

Recommendation 6.10
The Government of Canada should mandate and fund CFI to increase its share of the matching ratio for national-scale major research facilities from 40 to 60 per cent.

Recommendation 6.11
The Government of Canada should mandate and fund CFI to meet the special operating needs of
individual researchers with small capital awards.

Recommendation 7.1
The Government of Canada should direct the Four Agency Coordinating Board to oversee a tri-council process to reinvigorate and harmonize scholarship and fellowship programs, and rationalize and optimize the use of current awards to attract international talent.

Recommendation 7.2
The Government of Canada should renew the CRC program on a strategic basis in three stages:
1. Restore funding to 2012 levels, upon development of a plan by the granting councils and Chairs Secretariat to allocate the new Chairs asymmetrically in favour of Tier 2 Chairs, and increase the uptake of available funds through improved logistics in managing numbers and redRecommendation 7.3uced delays in awarding Chairs;
2. Direct the granting councils to cap the number of renewals of Tier 1 Chairs and, in concert with universities and CFI, develop a plan to reinvigorate international recruitment and retention, for review by NACRI and approval by the government; and 3. On approval of that plan, adjust the value of the CRCs to account for their loss in value due to inflation since 2000.

Recommendation 7.3
The Government of Canada should gradually increase funding to the RSF until the reimbursement rate is 40 per cent for all institutions with more than $7 million per year of eligible funding. Current thresholds should be maintained to enable additional support for smaller institutions. As the size of the envelope of RSF-eligible operating grants grows, the funding of the RSF should be increased in lock-step to sustain the reimbursement rate of F&A costs on a trajectory towards this 40 per cent goal.

About Marc Boucher

Marc Boucher
Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceRef Canada Interactive Inc, CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef U.S., advisor and co-founder of the Canadian Space Commerce Association, and director and co-founder of MaxQ Accelerator Inc. Previously he was the founder of Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine which he sold.