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Taking stock of the Naylor report, 5 years on

Some say there’s been too little progress toward supporting Canadian research in fundamental science.
BY BRIAN OWENS
MAR 02 2022

Taking stock of the Naylor report, 5 years on

Some say there’s been too little progress toward supporting Canadian research in fundamental science.

BY BRIAN OWENS | MAR 02 2022

In 2016, then science minister Kirsty Duncan convened a panel of experts to conduct a comprehensive review of Canada’s academic science and research ecosystem. Led by David Naylor, former president of the University of Toronto, it was the first such exercise in almost 40 years.

The resulting Fundamental Science Review (FSR), released a year later, included recommendations on how to streamline, support and improve the country’s research landscape. It became the lodestar for Canada’s science community, and for a time at least, the federal government as well. Now, five years later, the work to implement those recommendations is at best only partly done. And while the FSR, also known as the Naylor report, remains a top priority for academics, it seems to have largely slipped off the government’s agenda.

“The FSR tends to evoke strong emotions,” says Farah Qaiser, director of research and policy at Evidence for Democracy, a non-profit group that advocates for science-based policy decisions. “Some believe the government has fallen very short, while others say there has been a lot of progress. Everyone has strong opinions.”

Ms. Qaiser and her colleagues have reviewed the progress that’s been made so far. Of the report’s 35 recommendations, they found that nine have been completed. Another 13 are in progress, and 13 are incomplete. “I think progress on 22 out of 35 is pretty good news,” says Ms. Qaiser.

Some of the completed recommendations include steady, permanent funding for the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), a review of the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, and streamlining the federal government’s innovation programs. Another was the creation of the Canada Research Coordinating Committee (CRCC) to improve cooperation and collaboration between the three research funding councils (the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) as well as CFI and the National Research Council.

“The FSR tends to evoke strong emotions. Some believe the government has fallen very short, while others say there has been a lot of progress. Everyone has strong opinions.”

The CRCC has resulted in greater coordination among the various agencies, and the councils are working well together, says Dr. Naylor. But he adds that the CRCC’s effectiveness is somewhat undercut by having the chair of the committee rotate annually between the presidents of the Tri-Councils, instead of being given to the chief scientific advisor as the report recommended. That, says Dr. Naylor, is a recipe for internal horsetrading rather than tackling thorny issues head-on, such as deciding how to divvy up shared pots of funding. “We won’t see the really challenging issues resolved without outside brokering,” he says.

The review also recommended that a new high-level body, the National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation (NACRI), be created to provide broad oversight of the federal research and innovation ecosystems. The council, consisting of distinguished scientists, innovators, and civil society members, would replace the largely defunct Science, Technology, and Innovation Council (STIC). STIC is no longer operating, and a new Council on Science and Innovation (CSI) was announced in January 2019, when the government issued a call for applications for members. But since then, there have been no further details on the mandate, membership or whether the council is functional. “There’s still no federal oversight body,” says Ms. Qaiser. “I’m curious what happened with that council.”

A spokesperson for Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada says the government “continues to work towards” implementing the council but offered no specific details or timeline.

According to Dr. Naylor, the FSR’s most important recommendation is one that remains only partly complete: boosting funding for the research councils’ open competitions, and for students and trainees. “Those are critical elements of the report that saw some traction, but they didn’t do all that was recommended, and they need to take stock of where they are now, particularly in light of COVID-19 and the disruption it’s had,” he says.

Significant investment

Despite falling short of the recommendations, the money that was forthcoming was a serious and meaningful investment, says Dr. Naylor. The 2018 federal budget committed $925 million over five years for the Tri-Councils. That was just under 60 per cent of the $1.2 billion over four years for direct, investigator-led project funding that the FSR called for. And the 2019 budget included $114 million over five years to create 500 more master’s level scholarship awards and 167 more three-year doctoral scholarship awards annually through the Canada Graduate Scholarships program. That was slightly short of the recommended $140 million over four years. The 2021 budget also included big boosts for biomedical research, artificial intelligence, genomics, and quantum research.

The authors of the FSR were “drawing a bit in colour” when they made those funding recommendations, admits Rémi Quirion, Quebec’s chief scientist and a member of the FSR advisory panel. “The reality is that governments have to make choices, and budgets are not unlimited,” he says. But even acknowledging those constraints, Dr. Quirion says the increase in funding was not as large as he would have hoped for. He also says too much of it was still geared towards government priorities rather than open competitions, even before the pandemic created a new and impossible-to-ignore target.

“Funding is still a challenge,” he says. “It’s why some scientists are starting to make noise.”

Nathalie Grandvaux, a virologist at the Université de Montréal, says scientists welcomed the increase in funding for investigator-led research, but it has not translated into reduced pressure on lab budgets. The success rate for open competitions at the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, for example, remains largely flat at around 15 per cent, she says, because the number of grant applications submitted has risen in concert with the number of grants available. And the amount provided by each grant has not gone up significantly, so their value has actually decreased in real terms. “There has not been enough extra to compensate for the increase in the cost of everything,” Dr. Grandvaux says.

The new funding has also not been enough to keep pace with other countries, she says. “Even if we have increased funding, other countries are increasing it faster,” she says. “So we are no more competitive than we were before.”

“Funding is still a challenge. It’s why some scientists are starting to make noise.”

Students have similar concerns. Many welcomed the increased number of scholarships announced in 2019, and the 12 months of parental leave for those funded by the three main research councils. But rising tuition and cost of living have made the awards less valuable over the past two decades, says Isabella Lim, a PhD candidate in cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto and co-president of the Toronto Science Policy Network (TSPN), a student-run science policy group. An NSERC PhD scholarship, for example, is worth $21,000 a year for three years, or $35,000 for the top-ranked applicants. “The value of awards has been stagnant since 2003, while costs have increased every year,” says Ms. Lim. “So the funding announced in 2019 falls short of what we need, especially considering the disruption of the pandemic.”

The expanded number of awards, and parental leave, only applies to students who receive federal funding, leaving those who do not get federal grants scrambling even more to keep up. “We need to support students more broadly,” says Frank Telfer, a master’s student studying pediatric cancer at the University of Toronto and TSPN’s other co-president. Many in the scientific community also feel that the government no longer has much interest in completing the outstanding recommendations in the report. Since the 2018 budget, significant announcements on research funding have been few and far between – apart from some admittedly large ones dedicated to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic – and there seems to be little urgency in moving things forward. “There is an impression that the government feels it has ticked that box,” says Sivani Baskaran, a PhD candidate in environmental chemistry at the U of T and former president of TSPN.

Dr. Grandvaux agrees that it feels like the government has moved on, and no longer considers science to be a political priority. “The government responded to the report, and did some of the things in it, but I don’t have the feeling that it is a philosophy, that it has changed their way of thinking about research,” she says.

Science vs. politics

While during the 2015 election Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party assiduously courted scientists disaffected with the Conservative government, science and research has not enjoyed the same amount of attention in subsequent campaigns. “In the last election we didn’t hear anything about research,” says Dr. Grandvaux. “Not just for the good of science, but for the economy. They don’t seem to see it as part of what makes the economy work.”

Richard Cannings, the New Democratic Party Member of Parliament for South Okanagan-West Kootenay and the party’s former science critic, has also noticed a lack of action. “We haven’t seen any new activity on the FSR over the last two or three years,” he says. “Everything seems to have gone quiet in government circles.”

But Santa Ono, president of the University of British Columbia, says there is more to the government’s support for science than just top-line budget numbers at the research councils. There have also been big wins in other areas, he says, such as commitments to improving equity, diversity and inclusion through the Dimensions Charter and strengthened targets for the Canada Research Chairs. He also believes the support offered to students and researchers during the pandemic was among the best in the G7 countries.

“I wouldn’t say the government looked away from science. They are looking at other critical programs and investments that are crucial to Canadian science, to make it better and more inclusive,” he says. “I don’t think we do enough to thank the government for what they did. The FSR is a legacy for this government.”

In fact, Dr. Ono would like to see the exercise repeated, preferably on a regular basis, to keep track of changes to the landscape of international science. “There should be a commitment to do this at least every five years,” he says. “It’s important to take stock of where we are as a nation, how we’re supporting the next generation of scientists, how we’re doing relative to the rest of the world.”

While there is no indication that the government intends to commission another large-scale review of science, MPs may soon get the chance to do some digging on their own. Parliament’s new Standing Committee on Science and Research, chaired by former science minister Kirsty Duncan, will examine “all matters related to science and research,” and Mr. Cannings, who is also a member, says this should include a follow-up on the FSR. “It might be an idea, for our first study, to say ‘let’s study the Naylor report and see where the government is on it,’” he says. “We went to a great deal of trouble and talked to a lot of smart people for this report, and I think we should still look to it.”

Francois-Philippe Champagne, minister of innovation, science, and industry, says the FSR has been instrumental in guiding the government’s decisions on science and research. At an event announcing new grants awarded under the New Frontiers in Research Fund in January 2022, he suggested the government would continue to prioritize funding for science. “The investment that you’ve seen in the past is a good indication of the importance we give to science and research, and I would say [today’s announcement] is a good down payment when it comes to our commitment to science and innovation and research in this country.”

Even if the government is in fact placing less emphasis on the FSR as it develops its policies for science, the gaps the report highlighted around Canada’s international competitiveness in science remain a major issue. Other countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom and China have all made significant new investments in fundamental science in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic – investments that Canada, despite a boost in pandemic-related funding, has not been able to keep pace with. The U.K., for example, has pledged to increase spending on science by 35 per cent by 2026. And that will make it harder to attract and retain top scientific talent. “There is a global competition for talent,” says Dr. Ono. “Our best and the brightest researchers have options. If we don’t address the gaps in programmatic support and infrastructure support, we won’t be competitive with other nations.”

Addressing those gaps will require a plan, whatever form that might take. “Whether we use the FSR as a guide or not, it’s clear that we need to invest in fundamental science,” says Ms. Qaiser. “Others are doing so, and Canada risks falling behind.”

PUBLISHED BY
Brian Owens
Brian Owens is an award-winning science journalist and author based in New Brunswick.
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