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Naylor report lays the groundwork to renew basic research in Canada

Next step, says panel chair, is for the research community to find common cause and rally around the recommendations.

By ANQI SHEN | APR 12 2017

The panel charged with reviewing the federal government’s support of fundamental science released its final report on April 10, laying out a multi-year strategy that includes greater investment in independent investigator-led projects, better coordination between the four core research funding agencies and the creation of an oversight body called the National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation.

The panel also called for “major” reinvestments that would see annual federal spending on research-related activities increase by an average of nine percent over four years, from approximately $3.5 billion to $4.8 billion. Such an increase would represent 0.4 percent of the federal government’s annual budget, the report noted.

The nine-member advisory panel, chaired by former University of Toronto president David Naylor, was appointed in June 2016 by Science Minister Kirsty Duncan. The panel held round-table discussions in five cities, accepted 1,275 written submissions and engaged 230 researchers in consultations, producing a report of just under 250 pages on the state of basic science and scholarly inquiry in Canada.

Key findings

The morning of the report’s release, panel members discussed their findings at an event hosted by the Public Policy Forum in Ottawa. In presenting the report’s highlights, Dr. Naylor said, “We like to think of Canada as a smaller nation that punches well above its weight” in terms of research. Yet, the report notes, “By various measures, Canada’s research competitiveness has eroded in recent years when compared with international peers.”

Not only did federal research spending flat-line during that time, but there was also a shift in funding away from independent research to targeted, “priority-driven” research. Dr. Naylor said the panel considered this shift “misguided.” He added, “Governments cannot shortchange basic science and expect innovation to flourish.” Consequently, the panel said that its “single most important recommendation” was a phased-in investment of $485 million over four years directed to funding investigator-led research across disciplines. This would help to restore the proportion of funding between fundamental and priority-driven research back toward a 70:30 ratio.

The panel also recommended that the Canada Foundation for Innovation be given a stable, annual budget of around $300 million; and that the government increase support for the institutional costs of research from the current level of around 21 percent to 40 percent. In addition, the panel suggested funding to the Canada Research Chairs program be restored to 2012 levels, that funding of the chairs be adjusted to account for a loss in value due to inflation, and that new chairs should be “asymmetrically” allocated to Tier 2 awards to help early career researchers. As well, the panel recommended that a cost-benefit review be conducted of the Canada Research Chairs program versus the Canada Excellence Research Chairs programs to determine where investments should be directed.

Another key issue was the consolidation and oversight of research funding bodies. “What’s unusual about Canada is that we have a decentralized system of funding,” Dr. Naylor said. “While there’s not one model that seems to work best, most other countries unsurprisingly have some form of high-level oversight that knits their ecosystem together.”

On this issue, the panel has proposed the creation of an independent body, NACRI, to advise the federal government on research spending and strategy, and to coordinate various federally funded research activities. The new, yet-to-be-named chief science advisor for Canada would be the vice-chair of NACRI. In addition, a Four Agency Coordinating Board would be created with the goal to harmonize peer review practices and to develop policies to achieve certain equity and diversity targets.

Report’s reception

The report has been positively received by academic researchers, members of the wider scientific community and higher-ed organizations. “It is an excellent diagnostic of the Canadian research ecosystem and provides a very clear road map to restore investment in research and to address issues of long-standing concern,” said Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada. “When you look at our budget submissions over the years, everything is in the Naylor report.”

The next step is for the research community to find common cause, said Dr. Naylor. “The first thing I’m going to suggest tentatively is that we try to avoid engaging in an endless dissection of the report. I would urge some understanding that by supporting these recommendations as a broad package, without too much quibbling about the details, we are much more likely to see this report taken on,” he said at the event in Ottawa, adding, “The more united the voice, the stronger the voice.”

On the communication front, Martha Crago, Dalhousie University’s vice-president, research, and member of the review panel, underscored the importance of outreach. “I think it’s important for people in universities to help in any way they can to figure out how to convey the importance of fundamental research,” Dr. Crago said. “It’s not evident to your everyday person who doesn’t have a higher degree – what does this do?”

Moving forward

Jim Woodgett, a professor in medical biophysics at the University of Toronto and director of research of the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, voiced similar sentiments. “I think [the panel] hit the zeitgeist among researchers themselves and also research administration,” he said. “What’s very important is that the research community does get together and continue the conversation going forward, both by engaging with Members of Parliament but also with the public, because ultimately that’s where the support is coming from.”

Dr. Woodgett is helping to organize a multidisciplinary meeting of researchers in Toronto at the end of May. Dr. Naylor has been invited to present at the meeting, where researchers will discuss how to move forward on the report. “There’s a lot of interest in the meeting so we’re going to try to manage the people who can come based on representation between different fields of research and career stages. Hopefully it will spur additional meetings across the country,” Dr. Woodgett said.

While she was not in attendance at the panel’s discussion in Ottawa, Science Minister Kirsty Duncan issued a statement thanking the panel for their report. She 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.”

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