Polytechnics Canada's CEO featured in the Hill Times

Science advocacy 'most active' in years since Naylor Report's release, next budget 'test' of Ottawa's commitment to fundamental research 

By Jolson Lim

Originally featured in the Hill Times

Universities and research advocates have ramped up pressure on Ottawa to increase support for fundamental research in anticipation of 2018’s budget, with observers saying it’s the most active and loudest advocacy effort from the scientific community witnessed in years.

The research community has been abuzz since the April release of the fundamental science review panel’s highly anticipated report—commonly called the Naylor report after its group’s chair, former University of Toronto president David Naylor—which recommends Ottawa commit an additional $1.3-billion in annual funding for research within four years.

The call for new funding from the review panel, commissioned by Science Minister Kirsty Duncan (Etobicoke North, Ont.), has emboldened the science community to lobby the government hard to meet the report’s recommendations in the next federal budget.

Universities and advocacy groups have launched a series of awareness campaigns in an attempt to articulate to the public that basic science—discovery-driven research meant to answer fundamental questions as opposed to commercialization—is a long-term driver of innovation.  

Video testimonials with scientists talking about the wonders of research and #SupportTheReport frequently appear on social media. Individual universities and advocacy groups have created petitions, letter-writing campaigns, and encouraged members to contact and arrange meetings with local MPs.

Universities Canada, which represents 96 institutions, commissioned an Abacus Data poll that found 92 per cent of Canadians support increasing university research funding to comparable levels with other economically competitive countries.

Paul Davidson, the association’s president, told The Hill Times that advocacy since the Naylor report’s release has been the “most active” and “most aligned” he’s seen in the 15 years he’s worked in Ottawa.  

Mr. Davidson said his organization has been encouraging its members to invite MPs to their campuses, and that MPs visited more than 30 institutions last week while Parliament was recessed. He said many researchers took time in the summer to familiarize themselves with the report and are now vocal “in their own name and their own way.”

“This is not a masterminded campaign. It’s a broad-based effort,” he said, calling the Naylor report’s recommendations the “No.1 priority of the entire community.”

Universities Canada has also ramped up lobbying efforts, statistics from the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying show. The association appeared in 42 communication reports in October, more than double its presence in any other month so far in 2017 and almost twice as much compared to October 2016’s 24 communication reports. The subject matter of most of the meetings include “research and development” and “budget.”

The Canadian Association of University Teachers has refreshed its general “Get Science Right” campaign to focus messaging on the Naylor report’s recommendations. The association’s 70,000 members may sign a petition, draft letters, and find ways to contact their local MPs.
The association’s vice-president, Brenda Austin-Smith, told The Hill Times that researchers have become increasingly vocal since the start of the school year.

Next year’s budget a ‘test’ for Ottawa, advocates say

Advocacy efforts are in anticipation of next year’s budget, the first since the Naylor report’s publication, said Katalin Toth, a professor at Laval University and chair of the Canadian Association for Neuroscience’s advocacy committee. The association is one of three medical organizations that together set up a website to provide scientists basic resources and information about the Naylor report.

Prof. Toth told The Hill Times that the upcoming budget will serve as a “test” for the Liberal government’s level of commitment towards fundamental research.

“It’s a general feeling in the science community that we’re together holding our breath,” she said, noting its widespread support for the report’s recommendations is a “rare moment where all the different scientific fields agree.”

Prof. Austin-Smith said the upcoming budget will be “the beginning of a series of tests” to see whether Ottawa lives up to its vision of expanding basic science research.

Researchers want Ottawa to follow the Naylor report’s recommendation to increase annual spending through the federal government’s four main granting councils and related entities from $3.5-billion to $4.8-billion. 

Extramural research funding—money awarded to universities and research institutions—is mostly administered through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Infrastructural grants are administered through the Canadian Foundation for Innovation.

The government has so far hired a chief science adviser, Mona Nemer. Hiring a top scientist for the country was part of the report’s recommendation to establish a National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation overseeing Canada’s entire research landscape.

Other recommendations include mandating the granting councils to increase support for high-risk and high-impact research, develop strategies to encourage multidisciplinary research, and emphasize balancing the needs of younger researchers.

In an email, Ms. Duncan said she encourages all researchers to share their stories.

“Through the [Naylor report], we started a national discussion on the state of science in Canada,” she wrote to The Hill Times. “Researchers can be confident they have no greater champion than me.”

She said she supports most of the report’s recommendations and notes that a research co-ordinating committee was recently created to improve co-ordination between Canada’s granting agencies.

‘Huge hole’ to climb out of with basic science funding

Federal support for fundamental research at universities, hospitals, and research institutes declined under the previous Conservative government, concluded a report published earlier this year by Global Young Academy, an international society of young scientists.

The report found sharp declines in success rates for grant applications to fundamental research programs, particularly at SSHRC and CIHR. The report also surveyed university researchers and found the proportion of scientists who only conducted fundamental research collapsed from 24 per cent between 2006-10 to 1.6 per cent in 2011-15.

The general trend the report observed was of sharp increases in grant funding for applied research and declining spending on fundamental research. 

Julia Baum, the report’s lead author and professor at the University of Victoria, told The Hill Timesthat due to shifting government priorities, some senior scientists took early retirement, younger researchers left for other sectors, and those who remained switched to conducting more applied research.

“We’re driving out a large group of very talented Canadian scholars who would be doing fundamental research. And that research is the essential building block of innovation,” she said.

“Novel discoveries come from environments where researchers are allowed to take risks and ask big bold questions.”

By 2015, the funding gap for fundamental research in Canada was about $535-million compared to 10 years prior. In the 2016 budget, Ottawa spent $76-million towards the basic sciences but no new funding appeared in 2017.

“Not a bad start,” Jeremy Kerr, the report’s co-author and professor at the University of Ottawa, told The Hill Times. “That number is a small part of what is eventually going to be needed to make up this huge Harper hole in research budgets.”

Applied research colleges want Ottawa to ‘balance’ their interests with basic sciences

Nobina Robinson, CEO of Polytechnics Canada, told The Hill Times that the entire college sector receives 1.7 per cent of annual federal funding for postsecondary research and development. She said the only source of support from Ottawa to her association’s 13 applied research-intensive colleges is through NSERC’s College and Community Innovation Program.

The program began as a $15-million pilot project in 2004 and grew into a permanent, but small, initiative providing $53-million each year to colleges, although it hasn’t grown in four years while competition for funding has increased.

Ms. Robinson said colleges have expanded their research capabilities in the past two decades and hopes that Ottawa can strike a balance between university-driven basic science research and applied research better aligned to the natural role of colleges as workforce trainers.

“The new actors in the innovation ecosystem are really not supported as much as the traditional ones,” she said.

Ms. Robinson said the $53-million commitment should double in 2018. She said while universities are experimenting with new technology such as artificial intelligence, colleges take “breakthrough science and [help] companies to put it into their innovative practices.”