Some unedited thoughts for Canada’s fundamental science review panel

The Government bureaucracy seems to be buckling under the sheer number of reviews that the liberal government is currently conducting. One of them is focused on “determining the strengths of our current arrangements and pinpointing gaps and bottlenecks in Canada’s research funding ecosystem.” This review is welcome and overdue, especially that its panel is chaired by the knowledgeable and straight shooter, David Naylor, and populated by a few distinguished scientists such as Robert Birgeneau and Art McDonald. I will be submitting and co-submitting more formal recommendations elsewhere, but yesterday’s CFREF announcements managed to shake me out of my blissed procrastination. Time to get a few ideas off my chest.

The breadth of the program review has not been made very clear. The Minister of Science isolated two broad questions: Are there any overall program gaps in Canada’s fundamental research funding ecosystem? Are there programming features in other countries that could help the Government of Canada in addressing these gaps?

The gaps are there and there is room to be inspired by other countries, but the programs “between the gaps” also need to be reviewed. They’re not all perfect.

I am assuming the programs under review include NSERC, SSHRC, CIHR (Tri-council), CFREF, CFI, CERC, NCE, Perimeter Institute, IQC, CIFAR, CRC, Mitacs, Genome Canada, IDCR, Triumf, and perhaps a few other smaller initiatives (Stemcell, etc). Now if we put all this together, the total budget is a shade under $5B, which is a pretty big number ($100,000 per research faculty). It’s unclear whether the charge is to focus on revamping programs or doing something more aspirational (say recommending a wholesale change in the entire way that research enterprise is run). With that caveat, here are some thoughts:

A. Science Governance and decision-making:

  1. Peer review and consistent rigorous evaluation processes should be a fundamental tenet of all funding allocations. While government will always be tempted to fund one-off proposals, these should be placed into a program/council that can be given the mandate to evaluate proposals in areas of importance to the country. Direct research investments without peer review undermine the integrity of the portfolio of research funding programs. The IC-IMPACTS experience is one to build on – My understanding is that originally the government planned to fund Carleton but when they went to an open competition the UBC-UofT-UA consortium prevailed. Presumably, the result was a better proposal. The importance of the Michael Lazaridis donation was such that a similar competitive process couldn’t and didn’t apply to the Perimeter Institute. Yet, it has so far received close to a billion dollars in federal and provincial support. This type of non-competitive funding models –guided by good intentions, driven by a determined vision, shaped by donors, directed by government, and reviewed through KPMG– need to be thoroughly evaluated.
  2. While waiting for the long awaited appointment of a Chief Science Officer to Government, we argue for the creation of an arms-length Canadian Science Advisory Board that can develop coherent national strategies, and provide input on federal government decisions. This Board could be tasked with ensuring that granting councils “play well together.” STIC may be the right vehicle but its membership and its modus operandi need to be revised.
  3. Leadership matters. No amount of restructuring, consolidation or additions to the Canadian research ecosystem would make much difference if it is not matched by  appointments of competent and visionary leaders for the various research councils. What happened at NSERC a few years ago, and what is currently happening at CIHR are good examples of how research funding management matters.

B. Consolidation and focus

In comparison with peer countries, Canada has far too many programs for its relative demographic size. Needless to say, the required administrative oversight of each system adds bureaucracy and reduces effectiveness.

  1. Resurrect the “Industrial Research and Innovation Council (IRIC)” idea: The Tri-Council should be refocused around fundamental research and get out of the business of industry-facing research: Towards this, create a new research council for industry-facing research. This was recommended by the Jenkins panel, which proposed IRIC. The Conservative government chose to not follow up. If the Liberals follow through on this, it could significantly “clean up” the space, especially if IRAP is rolled into it. While doing this, most of the current funding at the Tri-Council should remain and be repurposed for basic research.
  1. Preserve and expand Discovery Grants as the foundational tool for supporting research. These have stagnated over time because they don’t seem “sexy” and yet every study shows they are the most impactful. But there are some changes needed. Fully expand Discovery into SSHRC disciplines. It exists but is too small. For CIHR it’s not so clear (to me) that this is always possible but should be explored. Revisit the disciplinary distribution for Discovery. This can be done when setting up a full Discovery grant program for SSHRC. Extra funding from other program consolidation might help, such as the repurposing of all partnership programs (NSERC’s RPP). Of these, only keep the Strategic Grants and get rid of the rest. Expand Strategic Grants to encourage more collaboration.
  1. Create a “Strategic Large Initiatives Council”-SLIC (No pun intended): This council would hold Networks of Centres of Excellence with a significantly expanded mandate that encompasses all the networks and allows greater creativity by the community. Expand it to include Perimeter, CIFAR, IQC, Mitacs, the math institutes, and Triumf. Putting these together would be a very significant envelope (likely in the order of $300M – $400M). If we also included the fundamental research institutes at NRC we’d have another $100M to $150M so the total grows to about $500M. Done right this would allow ongoing funding for the very best initiatives while creating a mechanism to cancel those that are underperforming and create room for new initiatives. If universities have major initiatives they want under a CFREF-like fund, they can propose them through this new council. Imagine that the large ongoing initiatives would have the prestige of Max-Planck in Germany.
  1. Roll Genome either into a granting council or into the council suggested in 3) above: I’m actually not sure why this is still a separate initiative.
  1. Amalgamate the failing CERC program and the successful CRC: Revamp CRC to make it meaningful for today’s reality. That includes increasing funding per chair. I’m thinking something like $150K for Tier 2 and $300K for Tier 1.
  1. Roll all infrastructure funding into CFI, which has been an effective programme to support experimental scientists.
  1. Create an “Early Research Career Council”-ERCC. Canada needs to improve its support for young and mid-career researchers. Funding can be found by cancelling CFREF and putting the money into this new council. This would support researchers for the first five years of their career. With a funding envelope of about $250M per year, this would create a way to launch new researchers to a higher level of performance.There might be a move to consolidate all graduate and postgraduate scholarships, fellowships and training programs in this council. Cancel useless two-tiered scholarships and fellowships, such as the  Vaniers and the Bantings.

One challenge is that the above proposals would create three more councils in addition to NSERC, SSHRC, CIHR:  IRIC for industry facing research, SLIC for major strategic initiatives, and ERCC for early stage researchers. But then, “the Federal government has at least 20 funding systems for just health related research.” There are ways to amalgamate some of these councils if needed. For example, consider joining NSERC and SSHRC. There are good reasons for this, but the fusion may also cause some heartburn. There is a lot of work to consolidate programs within the councils.

C. Leveraging federal resources with provincial and international funds

Leveraging provincial and university funds has been the norm for infrastructure grants (CFI) and others (CERC, CFREF). This should continue in spite of the “matching fatigue” frequently shown by provincial governments. On the other hand, Canadian Science is lagging in international partnerships (The Banff International Research Station (BIRS) may be the only continuing joint NSERC-NSF-CONACyT project). Incentives to increase such collaborations, preferably with Canadians in the driver’s seat and on Canadian soil, will be a good investment. NSERC has committed to this lately, but the most productive international collaborations and interactions are bottom up, driven by the scientists themselves, and not via government/administrators’ decrees.

D. Indirect Cost of Research

Some administrators keep claiming that the cost of research is a drain on University resources. This is only partially true if you don’t factor in the federal research dollars that support the teaching and  training mission via Labs, Chairs, Postdocs, Graduate and Undergraduates. Dollars that are not at the discretion of Deans and Administrators are not often seen as contributions to the academic mission. The impact of research excellence on a university’s reputation and appeal for students is seldom measured and appreciated. Still, the Government needs to find a way to adequately support the indirect cost of research at Canadian universities. The current levels are neither sufficient nor fairly distributed. The initial impetus for the CFREF program was to remedy these anomalies and allow the internationally competitive Canadian universities to do just that: compete on the world stage. The  “scheme” backfired and we are now back to square one. 

E. Challenges (Quotes below are from Jim Woodgett’s manifesto)

  1. Imbalance in scientific demographics: “The supply/demand of scientists is broken. Training takes too long, career progression is too precarious and incredibly talented people are giving up on science and on Canada.”
  2. Imbalance in gender demographics: For example, “that there are 25 male CERCs and only one woman is embarrassing and sends a terrible message.”
  3. Imbalance in geographic demographics: “Competition for science funding isn’t always a level playing field. Larger scientific centres have inherent advantages leading to geographical distortions. Rather than handicap the successful (competition is global), we must ensure support of disadvantaged centres through regional partnerships to sustain capacity and expertise.”
  4. An efficient and rigorous way to fund cross-disciplinary research: Having several separate councils may perpetuate this difficulty. However, trying to amalgamate councils to handle this will create a lot of other problems (research in vastly different disciplines has its own dynamics and amalgamating might create other problems).
  5. The flawed attraction to “Big Science” and the premature acceleration towards applications and commercialization needs to be curbed.


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3 Responses to Some unedited thoughts for Canada’s fundamental science review panel

  1. E. says:

    I think your last point bears repeating, great science dos not equate expensive science. Many top research groups in Canada were essentially excluded from the CFREF/CERC competions because they do not really need/can’t justify asking for milions of dolars. They would however benefit greatly from a few hundred thousand… But grants that can support “cheap and great” research sadly are not glamorous enough for many politicians and their appointees. I still hope this may change…

  2. anthonyquas says:

    I want to add my hobby horse here. The training of undergraduates in undergraduate-only institutions falls through the cracks. Researchers in these institutions are often unable to obtain research support, which then denies them access to further programs such as those funding undergraduate summer research. This is an important pipeline which is being starved by the current arrangements. The key problem appears to be that research is federally funded, while education is provincially funded. Maybe a hybrid program could make a big difference here?

  3. Priscilla Greenwood says:

    Last week I attended the first UBC session on the Naylor panel review at “Sage” (actually in Peter Wall Inst space). To my surprise the whole 2-hour thing was splitting into groups of 3 or 4 and going around to 7 paper-board stations, each provided with a preset topic, and writing comments (as a group) on large paper sheets. Setting the topics pre-directs such an exercise, of course, and the topics were mostly around “should we not give more money to big projects, especially big international teams?”. So, no peer reviews and someone up there makes the big decisions. I wrote many comments against this of course! Our UBC Research Office leaders will summarize these written comments later, and what do you suppose happens to my contributions? Those attending seemed to be motivated to attend by big money schemes of their own. There were just a few, like me, trying to defend actual research and the broad research community, including young and “mature” researchers.

    Someone needs to get in there and help set the topics! One of the topics was that one big additional project be set up, a particular “IT”, software type of scheme. A woman who was in my three-sum was there just to lobby for this very applied, almost industrial, group to be funded. Our UBC Research Office “leaders” seemed to be on her bandwagon, letting her set one of the 7 discussion points. The 7 points were largely rewordings of this same message, more funding for big projects and no mention of review! Your point # 5 at the end of your blog needs to be made loud and clear!!

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