Wells: Canada’s scientific research needs to be more agile

Sometimes to kill time in Ottawa, a few of us old-timers like to speculate about whatever happened to the Naylor report.

“Whatever happened to the Naylor report?” Tex will ask, or maybe it’s Mitch.

Long silence.

“Hard to say,” Four-Eyes will say at last.

The rest of us nod sagely.

God, we have such good times.

The Naylor report, as you know, was going to be the fruit of Canada’s Fundamental Science Review.

Here’s what it says there: “On June 13, 2016, the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, minister of science, launched an independent review of federal funding for fundamental science.”

The report’s findings were supposed to “help maintain and strengthen Canada’s international standing in fundamental science.”

The review was led by David Naylor, a former University of Toronto president, of whom I am personally fond. He popped out when he ran U of T (to the limited extent anyone can ever be said to “run” any university) amid the grey landscape of so much academic leadership. He was plain-spoken, not shy and he seemed to prize common sense highly.

Naylor was aided and abetted in his inquiry by an almost uniquely high-calibre group of colleagues, including Robert Birgeneau, another former U of T president (never enough of those, I say) who went on to be the chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, former University of British Columbia president Martha Piper, and Mike Lazaridis, who is still funding amazing research in Waterloo from money he made as a founder of BlackBerry.

Naylor’s report and recommendations “will be made public by the end of the year,” it still says on the science review website. To be fair I suppose it doesn’t specify which year. A few of us old-timers kind of assumed the year in question was 2016. Turns out the joke’s on us.

Now, here’s the thing. At the top of the science review website, there’s a quote from Duncan, the science minister, apparently meant to sum up the whole enterprise’s guiding philosophy.

“Our government must ensure its support for fundamental research is coherent, effective and agile enough to keep pace with the dynamic nature of contemporary science,” Duncan says.

And the thing is, she’s right. Whatever happened to Naylor’s report Canada’s government really should ensure its support for research is coherent and effective.

And it’s all the more important for Canada’s research effort to be agile when other countries are spectacularly dropping the research ball. I am talking about Great Britain, which voted weeks after the Naylor panel was convened to leave the European Union, and the United States, which voted last November to enter the Twilight Zone.

Canada built up a formidable head of steam as a research hub in the last half of Jean Chrétien’s term as prime minister, thanks to annual double-digit increases in the budgets of the three main science granting councils. That momentum stalled and declined in the Harper years, as another panel that reported to Harper’s own industry ministers explained, in detail, every two years to no coherent response.

Anyone who has followed this saga knows the current situation. The granting councils still spend more than $2 billion a year, but more and more of it was dedicated to specific projects, so there’s been less and less for young researchers pursuing unorthodox lines of inquiry.

Physical infrastructure is in the best state it’s ever been, thanks to the Canada Foundation for Innovation and to politicians always on the lookout for a ribbon to cut.

But sustained funding for the research that should go on in those shiny labs is a Byzantine maze with limited payoff.

Canada is not nearly as appealing a place to begin a science career as it was a decade ago. It is not even as appealing as it would be today if the science minister.

That’s the surprise ending to this tale. With the greatest respect to Naylor and his colleagues, their report was never the point of the exercise. The point was the political decisions, which are long past urgent.

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer.

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