In the run-up to the 2018 federal budget, university leaders continue to make a concerted push for the government to support the recommendations of the report of the Fundamental Science Review panel, also known as the Naylor report. A panel discussion hosted by Universities Canada and Policy Options on Sept. 19 put another spotlight on the report’s findings.
Parliamentarians, university presidents, and representatives from granting agencies and advocacy groups were among those gathered in Ottawa to hear from Santa Ono, president of the University of British Columbia; Janet Rossant, scientific director of the Gairdner Foundation; John Borrows, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Law at the University of Victoria; and Catherine Normandeau, a Vanier scholar pursuing a PhD in neuroscience at Queen’s University. The moderator was Jennifer Ditchburn, editor-in-chief of Policy Options.
While the Naylor report covers a wide array of issues – diversity and equity, forging a path for early-career researchers, indirect costs of research, and more – the report’s authors state that the “single most important” recommendation is that the federal government “rapidly increase” investment in investigator-led research.
“Morale is relatively low” among investigators, said Dr. Ono, “and the need for an infusion of funds to correct the 35 percent decrease in funds over the past 10 years is urgent. I can’t overemphasize that.”
“We can recruit new talent to Canada, but we have to assure that new talent that there’s a sustainable future for funding their research,” said Janet Rossant, who, in addition to her role at the organization that confers the prestigious Gairdner Awards for biomedical science, is a stem-cell biologist at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.
Other concerns arising from the discussion included making room for Indigenous researchers in the academy, breaking down disciplinary silos, and supporting early-career researchers through training awards. The financial support, said Ms. Normandeau, plays a big role in young researchers being able to pursue their work on a full-time basis. And, when it comes to creating opportunities for land-based, Indigenous forms of inquiry, Dr. Borrows noted, “we get widespread support but when we go to try to put that support down into one particular pot of research funding, it always falls between the cracks.”
The Naylor report, which noted that Canada is no longer in the top 30 most research-intensive nations, was commissioned by Science Minister Kirsty Duncan and released to the public this past April.
“It seems like a slam dunk,” said Gabriel Miller, executive director of the Federation for the Humanities and Social sciences, during the Q and A portion of the event. “Why is it challenging [to make the case for more research funding] and how do we overcome that challenge over the next six months?”
The research community is promoting the report against the backdrop of a national deficit, NAFTA negotiations and other federal challenges, noted Dr. Ono. “[Parliamentarians] do not have an easy job,” he said, adding that the benefits of fundamental science are often intangible to those outside the sector. “In the minds of some, the investment in research superclusters, in industry, is investment in research. … We need to probably try to distill that key concept of ‘what is fundamental science?’ a little bit better.”
While basic science might be hard to convey, recent polling has shown that public perception of university research is largely positive. The morning of the event in Ottawa, Abacus Data released results of a poll commissioned by Universities Canada. A large majority – 78 percent – of Canadians 18 years of age or older said they viewed universities in a positive light. Abacus also asked Canadians for their views on eight different topics of research – from climate change to medical breakthroughs to making cities more livable – and found that in every case more than 80 percent of respondents felt it was important that Ottawa support this type of research.
A video of the full event can be viewed here.