A Fallow Year for Science in Canada (and a prescription for rescuing it)

Last year’s Federal budget contained a number of significant dollar boosts for Canadian research but, more importantly, the language behind the funding signaled to researchers a change in government attitude. Indeed, the most important changes cost little — such as the establishment of a Chief Scientific Advisor and the ungagging of Federally employed scientists. Science, data and evidence “were back”, after almost a decade of policy where monetizing the products of science were given much more shrift than supporting basic scientific discoveries that are prerequisites for translation. Perhaps the greatest portend of the new research-friendly policy regime was the launch of the Fundamental Science Review, chaired by David Naylor. This was timely as Canada’s Federal science programs had proliferated over the prior 15 years or so with little apparent consideration of the national scientific enterprise as a whole.

In the US, science is federally supported by only a handful of large agencies (NIH, NSA, EPA, NASA, etc.) but Canada’s science support mechanisms metastasized from a core of the so-called tricouncils (NSERC/CIHR/SSHRC) and NRC to form a collection of more targeted and/or branded programs that are relatively uncoordinated (e.g. CF-REF, CERC, Brain Canada, Banting fellows, Vanier studentships, etc.). Some of these are operated by secretariats of the tricouncils, but have circumscribed budgets and mandates. Governments understandably like to create new initiatives and entities. A problem with the tricouncil model is that, while they form the backbone of Federal support, they are established and incremental. Perhaps the perception of their “reliable, plodding, baseline” characteristics accounts for why they’ve received little in the way of love from successive governments over the past decade. Indeed, their funding, in constant dollars, has been flat-lined, at best (and I’m being generous), since 2009 (fig. 1).

Fig 1. Brazenly stolen from the excellent Higher Education Stratefgy Associates Budget 17 report: http://higheredstrategy.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/2017-Budget-Commentary.pdf

I, for one, hope that the Naylor report will address this hairball of Federal supports and offer clear recommendations for consolidation and a bold, integrative strategy for moving forward. The first indication that this might not be the case was an apparent delay in the anticipated release of this report. The 2017 Federal budget notes its release “in the coming months” (page 88). It has been speculated that the report includes a “big ask” and that the 2017 Federal budget simply couldn’t accommodate this (Budget 2017 is certainly not big in new spending). The Report may also call for substantive restructuring of the funding streams and agencies — including consolidation. Whatever the reason for its non-appearance (I’ve also been told its for “translation”), the fact is whatever financial recommendations the report does make will not be actionable this year.

The pending nature Naylor report may explain why there is no (or only passing) mention of the tricouncils, Genome Canada, Canada Research Chairs (CRCs), or Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI )— the big guns of Federal science support. As an aside, omission of the only agency with Innovation in its freaking name from a document billed as an Innovation Budget must have had the good CFI people Googling alternative definitions. These core agencies provide the lionshare of funding for around 90% of the non-Federal, public sector researchers in Canada. For many scientists these agencies represent the only viable mechanism of operational funding.

Accompanying the lack of attention in the budget document was a remarkable freeze in funding for these mainstays of science. I use the word remarkable because even in the leanest of times since 2001, there was virtually always some top up for these agencies. The budget does allocate some money for various programs with direct or indirect scientific connections (these are detailed in an excellent blog by Rob Annan). “Winners” include $6 million to extend the life of the Stem Cell Network for a year, $35 million for CIFAR over 5 years, $125 million for Artificial Intelligence research (flowed through CIFAR) and almost $1 billion for “innovation superclusters” that will have some sort of academic component to them (I assume the latter two account for fawning budget messaging from Universities Canada and some counterparts, despite the rebuff to primary science funding agencies — though others such as CSMB and HealthCareCAN were more pointed). To be clear, compared to the science agencies that carry the water for the large majority of Canadian researchers, these are side investments.

This is not to say there aren’t some significant concerns about the operational effectiveness of the tricouncils. I, and many colleagues, have been a vocal critic of one. But the simple fact is that their persistent funding model and overall size means they are the de facto engines of science in Canada and they should be the predominant vehicle for adjudication of federal scientific funding. Moreover, the very existence of these agencies should provide the primary mechanism by which all research is supported. If AI, stem cells, quantum physics, etc. are hot and exciting areas, they should surely be able to compete well on the same playing field as other areas of research. Creation of niche vehicles signals that either they are not really competitive or our primary agencies can’t be trusted with their support. If the latter, then fix the dang agencies. When your roof leaks, you don’t build a new house! Notably, this is how other progressive countries support their research — they don’t keep spinning off boutique shops with their own administrations and lobbying activities, they strengthen their fundamental agencies. This forces integration, prioritization, efficiency and offers politicians a mechanism to counter influence-peddling.

At least to me, the core science agency budget freezes imply a worrying miscommunication and/or misunderstanding within government. The tricouncils, in particular, are structured to allow for predictive continuity. Science is a long-term endeavor and many projects span longer than a single government term. For the granting councils, funding quanta to researchers can be over 1 to 7 years. In practice, this means that in any given fiscal year an agency has only ~20% of that year’s funds to commit to new projects. The bulk of their budget is committed to previously approved, multi-year grants. By holding tricouncil funding at last year’s levels, the financial hit will be focused on that 20% and will impact a significant cohort of researchers. Since inflation in science costs runs at 3–5%, in effect, this represents a cut of the same magnitude. Indeed, there is much concern in the US over the Child-Presidents’ proposed slash of 20% to the NIH budget (the floated dollar cut equals ~10X the annual CIHR or NSERC budgets). Yet, over the past decade, the tricouncils have endured a cummulative, proportional cut greater than this. Furthermore, restructuring of mechanisms that deliver science programs should be designed to minimize impact to on-going research. This is precisely what went wrong with the ill-fated CIHR reforms which, as its President noted, was like changing an airplane motor while in flight. Again, WHY WOULD ANYONE ATTEMPT THAT?

At this point, you might be tempted to say: hang on Debbie Downer Jim, they’re just preparing for a significant re-investment in science next year. I certainly hope so. And as alluded to above, some may argue that at least one of the agencies (no more hints) is in such internal turmoil that adding any new funding would be a waste. In contrast, I would argue that now is the absolute worst time for a hiatus. Adding to the focused impact on new grants caused by a funding freeze, many Canadian research labs are hanging on by a thread and they are exactly the ones applying for those new funds. They cannot wait (yet) another year. Furthermore, the impact of BREXIT and the anti-science policies of the new US administration provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Canadian research to shine. Talented young minds used to flock to the US (and UK), by default, to train and many stayed to join the fantastic science and innovation bases in those countries. With doubts hanging over continuance of the US H1B visa program, Canadian universities, colleges and research institutes were already seeing increased interest from overseas, including the US itself. Indeed, the Federal Science Minister, in an interview with Globe & Mail Science Reporter Ivan Semeniuk, pointed to this opportunity for brain gain. Yet, without actual funds to do actual research, what is the point of putting out a “Welcome to Canada” mat?

I sincerely hope we’ve not blown this opportunity on a global level, but news travels fast. Now is precisely the time to be bold. The government prides itself in looking to the future, relying on developing Canada’s young brain resource to develop new industries and improve quality of life. Instead of holding onto the Naylor report, its release should have been expedited. It’s a report, not religious scripture, and will surely be a work in progress. Science moves quickly and is high risk/high reward. Treading water means losing ground. Hence, Budget 2017 was a missed opportunity to lay out a road map with details to be filled in, but with commitment to execute. Instead of laying out the framework for a scientific strategy for the next decade, even if only by promissory note, thousands of researchers are left wondering whether there is a future for them.

[Tongue in cheek], here are the 6 recommendations of the Alternative Woodgett Report on Fundamental Science, which has the distinctive advantages over the Naylor report of being released today AND costing nothing!

1. Restructure/collapse all existing Federal science funding to flow through the tricouncils and NRC. Make these responsible for supporting all aspects and fields of scientific endeavor.

2. Integrate the talents and mandates of CFI and Genome Canada into a cross-tricouncil program for infrastructure/equipment and large scale projects, respectively.

3. As per (2), integrate salary support funding mechansims (CRCs). Wind down CERCs and replace with a few “Canada is built on facts and science” banner-ads.

4. Create a “Canadian Science Integration Council” (CSIC**) to oversee tricouncil activities, promote coordination and provide it a recurring budget of its own (initially from salaries saved by eliminating ~15 Presidents/administrations and glossy annual reports that go to landfill), dedicated to emerging needs.

5. Banish virtual review as an adjudication mechanism and open source the Common CV.

6. Appoint a woman scientist to head CSIC***.

Let’s hope the government’s Fall financial statement takes appropriate corrective action.

Note: a shorter version of this essay will also appear on the Canadian Science Policy Conference website. Also, initial version called out the Stem Cell Network website for force loading Flash. Was a cache issue on my browser; they moved to a new provider last year, no problem now!

**Designed to cause confusion with CSIS and thus be awarded mega extra $ from time to time.

***It’s 2017 and I can think of a slew of perfect candidates.

Toronto researcher working on diabetes, stem cells, cancer & neuroscience. 140 chars are my own pithy but open access thought-lets.