Federal government launches review of how basic science research is funded

The Liberal government has named an independent, nine-member panel to review billions of dollars in federal funding for a variety of research-granting councils.

OTTAWA — The Liberal government has named an independent, nine-member panel to review billions of dollars in federal funding for a variety of research-granting councils.

Science Minister Kristy Duncan says the goal of the six-month study is to find better ways to make the most of funding for fundamental research.

And she’s pointing to a decade in which Canada’s international ranking on higher education research and development spending fell to eighth place from third in the world.

The previous Conservative government maintained billions in research funding but made a concerted push toward “taking ideas to the marketplace” — in the words of a former science minister — rather than funding basic scientific inquiry.

There is about $2.8 billion available for research granting councils in health, social and natural sciences, plus a $1.5-billion Canada First Research Excellence Fund and $1.3 billion over six years under the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

The review panel, which includes former Blackberry founder Mike Lazaridis and Nobel laureate Art McDonald, the former head of the Sudbury neutrino laboratory, is to report its findings by December.

Duncan said in an interview that she’s been criss-crossing the country since taking office last November and has heard a consistent message.

“We heard repeatedly that there is a need for this kind of review,” said Duncan. “Our scientists really have been ignored for 10 years and they are looking for solutions.”

However Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu, the party’s science critic, said the Liberals seem focused on studying and consulting rather than making decisions.

“There are areas where we can look at improvements,” in funding, added Gladu, citing specifically research overlap such as engineering and medicine.

The panel’s chairman, former University of Toronto president David Naylor, said the independent review appears to be first of its type in four decades of increasingly complex and “piecemeal” government research granting systems.

“Governments of all stripes love announceable programs. They like to graft on new and exciting things, bit by bit,” Naylor said in an interview.

“So what you have is a system where there’s been an awful lot of add-ons.”

Those grants range from Genome Canada and the Canada Foundation for Innovation to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

“The question of co-ordination and synergy is sometimes lost as that continual add-on process continues over years and decades,” said Naylor.

Naylor said the definition of basic science can be arbitrary, but the panel will be focusing on investigator-driven research.

He noted that many in the research community feel that new government funding in recent years was “earmarked,” while the Liberal budget signalled a change to “providing funding without that kind of earmarking and constraint that is welcome.”

It’s not an either-or proposition, added Naylor, but a matter of balancing fundamental and applied science “and that’ll certainly be an issue that’s on the panel’s agenda.”

The panel will also look at how much funding goes to senior established scientists as opposed to younger researchers, with an eye to engaging young PhDs and attracting others.

Panel member Martha Crago, the vice-president of research at Dalhousie University, doesn’t see the exercise as repudiating the Conservative approach to market-driven research, but as just another piece of the puzzle.

“I don’t think we need to blow the whole thing up but I think there are some really interesting possibilities to look at and to compare with other places.”

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