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Policy & Practice

Fundamental research continues to be undermined in Canada

More funds for science in recent decades has meant more political pressure on research councils to showcase impact and demonstrate relevance.

BY EMINA VELETANLIĆ | FEB 07 2020

The following is a guest column written by Emina Veletanlić, a PhD student at the University of Toronto’s Centre for the Study of Canadian & International Higher Education. Her interests include research policy and emerging technologies.

Over the past four decades, governments worldwide have been steering research policy towards stimulating innovation and commercialization. The Canadian government is no exception, having been a conspicuous participant in this global policy trend regardless of party line.

This emphasis has found criticism in the domestic scientific community, which has been vocal about the impact of recent changes in science policy. The 2017 landmark review of the Canadian research system showed a clear consensus among researchers that the funding of science has become more fettered and commercial. Basic evidence appears to bear out their unease: anecdotal testimony, waning grant success rates and ever-shrinking basic funding per scientist are all pressure points.

However, what is mostly unavailable to support researchers’ impressions is solid longitudinal evidence speaking directly to the issue. The overall character of research – whether more fundamental or applied – is not tracked in Canadian R&D statistics. As such, direct assessment of the situation remains imprecise.

To obtain some accuracy in this area, Creso Sá and I conducted an in-depth investigation of funding allocations at one of the largest administrators of federal investments in R&D: the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). With a current annual operating budget at well over $1 billion, NSERC is a core engine of federally funded research.

By analyzing 25 years of R&D grant data – equivalent to over $18 billion in investments – we detected measurable shifts in the type of funded research, evaluation committees and the distribution of money across research areas. We found that before 2007-08, research programs devoted exclusively to basic research made up over half (52 percent) of total annual funding from NSERC. Fast forward to 2015-16 and this tally stood at just 40 percent.

Use-inspired and applied research funding has increased commensurately. Programs driven by university/college–industry partnerships, thematic programs and large networks – most of which favour use-inspired basic or applied research – accounted for well over 40 percent of all investments in 2015-16.

Another vector of concern is the setting of research goals. In the years leading up to 2007, about 70 percent of NSERC funds were provided for projects that leave scientists with the freedom to pursue their own objectives. However, by 2015-16, expenditures on these projects fell to 56 percent. A similar shift has occurred in the proportion of funds awarded by review committees formed exclusively by disciplinary experts, as opposed to committees involving industry experts and other stakeholders.

The winners in all this are a small subset of research fields that have been very well funded across all types of programs. All said, our results support and provide greater granularity to the more general picture painted by the Fundamental Science Review.

Investing in innovation is of course not inherently bad. We need use-inspired basic and applied research to accelerate solutions to societal challenges, and many scientists supported by the tri-council naturally conduct research inspired by use and application. However, policy decisions on science funding have led to very real trade-offs, skewing investments towards short-term outcomes at the expense of unfettered research within primarily science-funding agencies. As we argued elsewhere, funding mechanisms must be carefully conceived to encourage innovation without undermining fundamental research capacity.

Budget 2018 introduced more funding for science, which was helpful in redressing growing gaps. But this will only remain helpful if the investments remain consistent in the long term. The Fundamental Science Review set high expectations for restoring the health of the research system, but the slow implementation by the federal government has taken the shine off (see here, here, and here). At the same time, more funds for science in recent decades has meant more political pressure on research councils to showcase impact and demonstrate relevance. This has required a balancing act among our main science funding agencies, which may continue to be expected to direct resources towards the pursuit of near-term outcomes – a potentially unsatisfactory alternative for strengthening national research capacity and enabling a range of contributions to society.

ABOUT EMINA VELETANLIĆ
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  1. Brian Fisher / February 13, 2020 at 15:22

    I’m not sure that the basic vs applied distinction makes much sense anymore. NSERC today talks about investigator-led vs partnership funds, which is more to the point. Answers to research questions that are a product of observations made in applied projects are as likely to contribute to generalizable knowledge as those that arise from conversations at conferences, divine inspiration, or any other means. Methods for running today’s more complex research studies may very well draw from technologies and methods developed in application projects. It is likely that many of those studies are being done on partnership funding.

    I do agree that scientists should have the ability (and funding) to pursue projects that are not tied to a specific application, but I think that in addition to investigator-led funding we should look more closely at highly-integrated basic and responsive research as a way to gain more value from application work.