Notes on “Canada’s Fundamental Science Review”

The problems plaguing basic science in Canada are exposed in surprisingly blunt language.

The federal panel reviewing fundamental science in Canada published its final report on 10 April 2017. Below are my notes from the Abstract and Executive Summary, taken in the days following the report’s release. The full document is 280 pages in length, and I expect to delve into the details shortly.

My first impression is that the panel has produced an excellent report that exposes the problems plaguing basic science in Canada in surprisingly blunt language. Several colleagues that I have spoken with share this assessment.

In particular, the panel notes that:

  • Canada’s research competitiveness has declined in recent years, in tandem with a change to priority-driven and partnership-oriented research at the expense of independent, investigator-led research;

  • There is poor coordination between granting agencies, leading to inconsistent alignment of infrastructure and operating funds;

  • There is little in the way of “lifecycle” planning for either facilities or careers;1

  • Regarding access to funding, there are “distressingly low success rates (CIHR) and persistently low funding levels (NSERC, SSHRC)”;

  • CFREF is concentrating funds in the previous government’s priority areas; and

  • Facilities and administrative costs are mostly uncovered and are being absorbed at each university to the detriment of their teaching mission.

Many of these issues are well-known to university research faculty. It is nice, however, to see them properly documented.

There are a few additional problems that that spring to mind. It is possible that these are explored deeper in the report. I list them here for future reference:

  • There isn’t any critical analysis of the vision for the CRC and CERC programs;2

  • There is no apparent concern that universities are increasingly managing facilities over the long term, for which they are poorly suited;3

  • The role of federal departments in basic science is not discussed (this was outside the scope of the review); and

  • There is no discussion about the persistent lack of support for mid-level positions in science; i.e., career options for those who won’t go on to become professors.

A variety of solutions are proposed for the problems, which I list here with a little commentary. Some of my concerns are relegated to footnotes because they may be mollified (or expand) by reading the rest of the report.

  • “The Panel’s single most important recommendation (R6.1) is that the federal government should rapidly increase its investment in independent investigator-led research to redress the imbalance caused by differential investments favouring priority-driven targeted research over the past decade.” Hallelujah. This is a strong, and most welcome statement. The enormous gambles being taken by the federal government on narrow programs and small groups of people are damaging Canada’s scientific capacity overall. Nevertheless, there is still a risk in the above statement: It needs to be made clear that the new investments should be distributed broadly, rather than concentrated into the hands of a small number of researchers.

  • The panel proposed the creation of an independent National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation (NACRI). This is a political body by design. It is not clear to me how NACRI would facilitate action on the “single most important recommendation”. I can easily see it becoming a vector for more politically-motivated interference in science, and further targeting of funding. The implementation will be crucial. 4

  • The panel proposed the establishment of a coordination board between the major agencies. The current lack of coordination leads to mismatches between infrastructure and operations funding, leading to a lot of under-utilized (and sometimes completely unused) infrastructure. In particular, support for salaries is needed if research is to get done. A coordination board could help here, so long as it doesn’t undermine the independence of the major agencies.

  • The report says a review of CFREF is needed. A thousand times, yes. This program is damaging our universities, a topic I plan to write more about this summer.5

  • The panel proposed changing the mandate of the NCE program to foster “collaborative multi-centre strength in basic research in all disciplines”. Right now the NCE program is highly focussed on economic output, which encourages researchers to exaggerate or speculate on basic research outcomes. This change is long overdue.

  • The report says CFI’s funding should be stabilized. CFI has been supported through periodic ad hoc allocations by the federal government. Stabilizing its funding is appropriate given that CFI is now an established funding body. 6

  • The panel argues that CFI should support small-scale projects (at this time, it may only fund large-scale infrastructure projects). 7

  • The panel proposes about $1B in funding increases to address various shortfalls. It is noted that the federal government’s current contribution to science funding is absurdly low.

Update 12 May 2017: Corrected information on the availability of funding for small-scale projects in the text and associated footnote.

  1. I take this as an acknowledgement that sudden funding shortfalls are destroying scientific capacity, although I wish they had been more explicit about this.

  2. In my experience, there is often little distinction between a regular hire and a CRC, indicating factors other than merit are involved in their award. CERCs on the other hand, have encouraged universities to make damaging gambles.

    Those who are not awarded a Chair are at a persistent disadvantage in funding competitions. Over the long term – and in the current funding climate – this damages the sustainability of research programs. The result is a two-tier faculty, something that is harmful to the collegial fabric of our universities.

    I’m not saying that there is no room for Chairs; however, that there are so many of them is distorting our science investments and the operation of our universities. Other mechanisms for attracting talent and funding professorships should be explored.

  3. The mandate of a university is teaching and discovery, which leads to a process of constant renewal (a very good thing!). The historic management role of government staff was not addressed in the report’s Executive Summary.

  4. Who decides NACRI’s composition, and how? How will its independence be established and maintained across multiple governments? How will NACRI ensure that decisions in the best interests of advancing science — not politics — are made? What mechanisms will be in place for the research community to provide feedback?

  5. CFREF concentrates funds into small groups of researchers, while starving everyone else. It has politicized science at our universities like no other program before it. In the long term, CFREF is a recipe for downsizing faculties, as more LTAs and sessional are hired to replace “unproductive” faculty who find themselves outside a CFREF silo with nothing to do.

  6. I liked the report’s position that CFI “depoliticizes” infrastructure investments. This is something I had not thought about before, but find myself generally in agreement with.

  7. NSERC already has a Research Tools and Instrumentation (RTI) program – cancelled then partially restored during the Harper years – that funds small-scale purchases for the research programs it supports. It seems to me that it would be simpler to reinvest in NSERC’s program.

(Updated 12 May 2017)