It’s time to fill the gaps in our
by Martha Crago
he federal minister of science, Kirsty
Duncan, has asked the Canadian research
community to take the time to stop and
reflect on the funding of fundamental
research. Just to be clear, this means all
kinds of research, including the humanities and
I have the privilege of sitting on the Advisory
Panel on the Federal Funding of Fundamental
Research that is chaired by former University of
Toronto President David Naylor (the nine-mem-ber review panel was announced by Minister
Duncan on June 13). Although the panel has just
begun its work in earnest, summer being what
it is, I already find myself turning many issues
and questions over in my mind.
Built over 40 years, sometimes one piece at
a time, one federal budget after another, some
of our funding structures and programs are now
in what could be considered their middle age.
Some, on the other hand, are brand new. It is a
good time to ask ourselves how they fit together
and how they have adjusted to being middle-aged in today’s world – just as many of us ask
ourselves how we fit in our kids’ and our grand-kids’ worlds.
Times have changed. Interdisciplinary research
and international collaborations are now seen
as key to addressing many global challenges.
Social issues are at the forefront much as they
were in the 1960s. Climate change has become
a universal preoccupation. Food and water sup-
plies remain insufficient for a growing popula-
tion. Infectious diseases continue to haunt us.
Big data grows bigger, even as new technologies
operate at nano- and quantum scales. There is
no lack of important research to be done in partnership across disciplines and borders.
In this context, I see many intriguing questions about Canada’s support for basic research.
What should the average success rates in various
programs be and how should these vary over a
researcher's career? This, of course, leads to questions of how much funding is enough, and at
what stage and for what? Canada’s professoriate
is retiring later and becoming older. This means
we have a number of very experienced senior
scientists. Are they squeezing junior scientists
and mid-career scientists out of funding? And
will this situation ease as the baby boomers
vacate the professorial ranks?
Other countries have been doing the same
kind of stock-taking. In the U.K., Paul Nurse wrote
an interesting report, Ensuring a successful UK
research endeavour: A Review of the UK Research Councils, released in November 2015 and readily available online. France is presently reviewing the
structure and functioning of its Centre national
de la recherche scientifique (CNRS).
Given what others are recommending, it is
interesting to consider what is uniquely Canadian about how we fund science and scholarship.
We are often prone to spread funding like peanut
butter and, at the same time, we have excellence
funding, “big science” and foundation programs
in certain research domains. I have wondered if
we need new mechanisms to pinpoint research
priorities essential to the national interest or
areas where Canada can lead the world.
On the other hand, big bets to accelerate
basic research have usually failed unless they
focus on building platforms for very wide use.
A case in point: the Large Hadron Collider.
That leads me to international science funding,
where shortfalls often constrain us to “associate”
status rather than taking the stage as a leader.
Perhaps it’s because I was raised in the U.S. and
socialized in American pride, but I firmly believe
Canadians should stand taller in big science and
international research collaborations.
In short, this is a time to ask ourselves about
gaps in our research ecosystem as well as to
affirm those structures and programs in place
that are enviable. We need to think about how
fundamental research can be funded in the best
Canadian way possible in today’s world and
going forward another 40 years. By the way, 40
years is a long time to wait before taking stock
of our research funding on a system-wide level.
Do we need new mechanisms to ensure that
reviews occur more routinely and frequently?
All these issues and many others mean that
this review matters to all of us as a community of
scientists and scholars. Be sure to join the conversation and contribute your advice before the
deadline of September 30. The sciencereview.ca
website has a link to where you can add your
views. We look forward to hearing from you.
Martha Crago is vice-president,
research, at Dalhousie University.
Her column appears in every
second issue of University Affairs.
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