Canada’s Science and Innovation Ecosystem

My notes from Chapter 1 of Canada’s Fundamental Science Review.

I am now starting to delve into the details of Canada’s Fundamental Science Review. Chapter 1, titled “Canada’s Science and Innovation Ecosystem”, describes the Review panel’s mandate. Of particular interest is Exhibit 1.2 (reproduced here) which identifies the granting agencies and programs of specific interest. This leads into a discussion of the damage being done by Innovation programs to discovery science. Any damage from Chairs programs, on the other hand, is overlooked. More on that shortly.

Canada’s extramural granting agencies, programs and funding levels (millions of CAD annually) for 2015-2016. From Canada’s Fundamental Science Review.
Canada’s extramural granting agencies, programs and funding levels (millions of CAD annually) for 2015-2016. From Canada’s Fundamental Science Review.

The report explains that the panel’s mandate was to review the federal system of supports for “extramural” research, defined as research done outside of government. Federal Departments, such as Environment and Climate Change Canada, were explicitly excluded from the Review. In some sense this is regrettable: federal scientists play an important and unique role in Canadian science, a role that has been weakened over the past few decades. It seems likely that expanding the scope of the review to include “intramural” research would have made the panel’s task too large. Perhaps another panel is needed.

The main exhibit in Chapter 1 is a figure that identifies the extramural granting agencies, their programs and funding levels. As shown in the figure, programs that are “Innovation linked” were excluded from the Review. “Innovation” is a buzzword that has infected the funding landscape over the past two decades. According to the panel, “Innovation” focuses “not on generation of new knowledge but on use or application of existing knowledge, be it through commercialization, social innovation, or uptake into public policy.” This is outside the scope of a review of support for fundamental science.

Nevertheless, the panel found they could not completely ignore Innovation programs. They showed, for example, that the funding for NSERC’s Strategy for Partnerships and Innovation ($284 million per year) is now competitive with their budget for Research and Scholarships ($470 million per year). The impact is that

“federal support in recent years has migrated away from independent research, and been directed instead to industry-facing programs that purport to promote innovation and economic growth”

(emphasis is mine). The panel appears to be skeptical of the Innovation agenda. Indeed, the first recommendation in their report is that innovation-related programming should be reviewed. I agree.1

The panel did not express similar concerns with respect to other programs in the funding landscape. For example, there was no comment on the high level of funding for the Canada Research Chairs ($265 million per year) and the Canada Excellence Research Chairs ($35 million per year) programs. This surprised me. Chairs programs effectively subsidize universities in an area of provincial jurisdiction, which is not unlike how industry is subsidized by Innovation programs.

Moreover, as the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) pointed out way back in 2005,

“A fundamental failure in the original design of the [CRC] program was that the federal government abrogated to itself the setting of priorities for Canada’s universities by arbitrarily deciding how many chairs would be in each disciplinary category… Each university, through its normal academic decision-making process, should have the right to decide the areas of specialization of chairs allocated to it under the Program so as to ensure that the CRC Program reinforces institutional excellence, not serve to redirect universities to meet federal government priorities.”

In a very real sense, the CRC program marked the beginning of a push by the federal government toward more priority-driven and partnership-oriented research at the expense of independent, investigator-led research. This is an issue of major concern for the panel, as explained in the Executive Summary of their Review.

So why did the federal science panel call out one set of programs for scrutiny but not another? Probably because reviewing the Chairs programs is within the mandate of the Review, but Innovation programs are not. I hope to read more about the panel’s thoughts on Chairs later in their report.

  1. It is interesting to note that Canada ranks poorly in business Research & Development investment. This is not because of a low level of support from the Federal government, which ranks 10th among advanced economies. It is due to a lack of investment from business itself, which ranks 26th. Even more troubling is that business investments in R&D dropped significantly from 2006-2013, despite the redirection of funds to industry-facing programs.