Western applauds fed re-investment in research

A new blueprint for scientific research – said to be the most comprehensive in four decades – offers Canada a renewed opportunity to be a world-changer in the sciences, according to Western administrators and scholars.

Commissioned last year by Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan, and led by former University of Toronto President David Naylor, the Report of the Advisory Panel for Federal Support for Fundamental Science – dubbed the Naylor Report – calls for a new vision of sustained excellence across postsecondary disciplines.

Released April 10, the report stated that federal government sources represent just 25 per cent of total research-and-development funding that takes place in higher education. The panel recommended enhanced support for early career researchers; strategic and coordinated collaboration for international and interdisciplinary research; improved gender equity in science; and increased funding for discovery research.

“The report rightly concludes that Canada’s research competitiveness has eroded significantly in recent years, and it offers a wide-ranging list of recommendations that aim to reposition our country as one seriously committed to global leadership in science and scholarly inquiry,” Western President Amit Chakma said.

Key emphases at Western have included innovation, internationalization and collaboration – which are likewise at the core of the Naylor Report, he said.

The report puts forward a multi-year strategy stressing greater investment in independent investigator-led projects, better coordination between the core research funding agencies and the creation of an oversight body called the National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation.

According to the report, the federal government needs to increase support for the institutional costs of research from the current level of around 21 per cent to 40 per cent. The panel also wants to see annual federal funding for research-related activities increase by an average of 9 per cent over four years – from approximately $3.5 billion to $4.8 billion. Such an increase would represent 0.4 per cent of the federal government’s annual budget.

“I applaud the report’s authors for calling not only for major and urgent re-investment, but also for the creation of an independent national advisory council comprised of distinguished scientists and scholars to provide oversight of the federal research and innovation ecosystem,” Chakma said.

The panel wants to see a stable annual budget of roughly $300 million for the Canada Foundation for Innovation. It calls for funding to the Canada Research Chairs program to be restored to 2012 levels, adjusting to account for a loss in value due to inflation. The panel also recommended a cost-benefit review of the Canada Research Chairs program versus the Canada Excellence Research Chairs program to determine where investments should be directed.

“Canada’s universities welcome this multi-year roadmap for supporting top talent and our next generation of researchers, which comes at a significant global moment for Canada,” said Paul Davidson, President of Universities Canada.

“In a global context of closing borders and closing minds, the panel sees an urgent need for Canada to re-invest in discovery research, scale up our ability to attract top minds from around the world, and better support our future research and innovation leaders.”

What’s particularly exciting about the report is it reflects what the research community believes and what that community has indicated it needs, added Mark Daley, Western’s Associate Vice-President (Research), a Computer Science, Biology and Statistics & Actuarial Science professor, as well as a principal investigator at the Brain and Mind Institute.

“A huge number of our researchers – and this is true in science and outside science – are basic researchers. We have a lot of folks doing applied and industry-focused work, but we also have a huge cohort of the professoriate who are professors precisely because they have basic questions they want to get at. The Naylor Report makes a strong argument (for investment in basic research) which he backs up with data. These investments are often the ones that lead to novel technologies,” Daley explained.

The March for Science, a response to budget cuts for scientific research in the United States and a global movement in support of scientific research, set for April 22, is a good reflection of the need for these types of investments, he added.

“We live in a time where we’re recognizing what science has been able to accomplish for us as a society and as a nation. People are excited; they’re empowered and enthusiastic about that and they see that (report and march) as an important path forward,” Daley said.

“Scientific research is foundational to who we are as Canadians and where we are going as a nation. We punch above our weight, and historically have done so in science and technology. That’s an important area for us to invest in and grow.”

Biology professor Amanda Moehring, organizer of the London March for Science, echoed Daley’s sentiments.

“Clearly the United States and Canada, in this moment, in terms of science, are heading in opposite directions. The Naylor report is pushing for greater investment and we’re seeing the opposite effect in the United States with a dramatic reduction in funding,” she said.

“The new (Canadian) administration has strongly embraced, at least verbally, wanting to make evidence-based decision-making. While we see the disdain for fact-based decision-making in the United States, it is better in Canada – but we still can do better. This relates by both supporting our friends and neighbours in the United States in that this is a worthy thing to be fighting for, but also, that this is a path we should be on, but let’s keep going.”

READ ALL ABOUT IT

Read the Report of the Advisory Panel for Federal Support for Fundamental Science – dubbed the Naylor Report – at sciencereview.ca.