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It’s time to fill the gaps in our research ecosystem

We need to think about how fundamental research can be funded in the best Canadian way possible.

By MARTHA CRAGO | September 2, 2016

The federal minister of science, Kirsty Duncan, has asked the Canadian research community to take the time to stop and reflect on the funding of fundamental research. Just to be clear, this means all kinds of research, including the humanities and social sciences.

I have the privilege of sitting on the Advisory Panel on the Federal Funding of Fundamental Research that is chaired by former University of Toronto President David Naylor (the nine-member review panel was announced by Minister Duncan on June 13). Although the panel has just begun its work in earnest, summer being what it is, I already find myself turning many issues and questions over in my mind.

Built over 40 years, sometimes one piece at a time, one federal budget after another, some of our funding structures and programs are now in what could be considered their middle age. Some, on the other hand, are brand new. It is a good time to ask ourselves how they fit together and how they have adjusted to being middleaged in today’s world – just as many of us ask ourselves how we fit in our kids’ and our grandkids’ worlds.

Many challenges

Times have changed. Interdisciplinary research and international collaborations are now seen as key to addressing many global challenges. Social issues are at the forefront much as they were in the 1960s. Climate change has become a universal preoccupation. Food and water supplies remain insufficient for a growing population. Infectious diseases continue to haunt us. Big data grows bigger, even as new technologies operate at nano- and quantum scales. There is no lack of important research to be done in partnership across disciplines and borders.

In this context, I see many intriguing questions about Canada’s support for basic research. What should the average success rates in various programs be and how should these vary over a researcher’s career? This, of course, leads to questions of how much funding is enough, and at what stage and for what? Canada’s professoriate is retiring later and becoming older. This means we have a number of very experienced senior scientists. Are they squeezing junior scientists and mid-career scientists out of funding? And will this situation ease as the baby boomers vacate the professorial ranks?

Other countries have been doing the same kind of stock-taking. In the U.K., Paul Nurse wrote an interesting report, Ensuring a successful UK research endeavour: A Review of the UK Research Councils (PDF), released in November 2015 and readily available online. France is presently reviewing the structure and functioning of its Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS).

Given what others are recommending, it is interesting to consider what is uniquely Canadian about how we fund science and scholarship. We are often prone to spread funding like peanut butter and, at the same time, we have excellence funding, “big science” and foundation programs in certain research domains. I have wondered if we need new mechanisms to pinpoint research priorities essential to the national interest or areas where Canada can lead the world.

On the other hand, big bets to accelerate basic research have usually failed unless they focus on building platforms for very wide use. A case in point: the Large Hadron Collider.

Standing tall

That leads me to international science funding, where shortfalls often constrain us to “associate” status rather than taking the stage as a leader. Perhaps it’s because I was raised in the U.S. and socialized in American pride, but I firmly believe Canadians should stand taller in big science and international research collaborations.

In short, this is a time to ask ourselves about gaps in our research ecosystem as well as to affirm those structures and programs in place that are enviable. We need to think about how fundamental research can be funded in the best Canadian way possible in today’s world and going forward another 40 years. By the way, 40 years is a long time to wait before taking stock of our research funding on a system-wide level. Do we need new mechanisms to ensure that reviews occur more routinely and frequently?

All these issues and many others mean that this review matters to all of us as a community of scientists and scholars. Be sure to join the conversation and contribute your advice before the deadline of September 30. The website has a link to where you can add your views. We look forward to hearing from you.

Martha Crago
Martha Crago is vice-president, research, at Dalhousie University. Her column appears in every second issue of University Affairs.
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  1. Donald R. Forsdyke / September 7, 2016 at 3:07 pm

    Vice-President Crago is turning “many issues and questions” over in her mind. Indeed, this is how a research project begins. She tells us that “times have changed” and the funding structure of Canadian basic research has been “built over forty years.” So it all began, let’s see, in 1976. It seems no one has been “taking stock of our research funding system” in the interim, certainly not before 1976 (the year when Richard Nixon projected that cancer would be cured). Not my impression!

    For one, in the 1990s a group of Canadian scientists calling themselves “Canadians for Responsible Research Funding” (CARRF) organized two conferences and wrote many papers and at least one book. And there were many granting agency initiatives to try to improve things. We are also given the impression by Vice-President Crago that it is the utter novelty of current issues, such as climate change, that should drive our response to the many issues and questions that bother her.

    I suggest that many issues that trouble us now have troubled research for centuries. Much of the biosciences took root in the nineteenth century and Darwin is as good a starting point as any for those disciplines. The importance of this is that, a century or so later, there is less ambiguity about the end-points by which we can score success. So we should turn to historians of science for guidance. We should try to analyze why, for example, William Bateson, who was the steward of his college kitchens, struggled to get research funds, yet his contemporary, Raphael Weldon, went from a London chair to one at Oxford. With massive research funding, he not only achieved very little, but obstructed Bateson’s efforts to introduce and validate Mendel’s discovery of what we now call genes.

    I could go on and on. My advice to the Advisory Panel is to recommend massively increase funding for the History of Science. As they say, those who do not study history, repeat it. And, indeed, much, much, repetition there has been! When, oh when, will we learn!

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