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Review of Canadian science calls for better oversight, coordination—and more money

To reinvigorate its science base, Canada needs to “reinvest” almost CAD$500 million in basic, investigator-led research over the next 4 years, according to a long-awaited review of the country’s science and innovation landscape released today.

“A crucial shortcoming in the system is the level of support for independent investigator-initiated research,” David Naylor, a former president of the University of Toronto in Canada who led the nine-person review panel, told ScienceInsider. “That support has been squeezed for about a decade.”

Naylor’s panel, which also included BlackBerry co-founder Mike Lazaridis and Nobel laureate Arthur McDonald, was commissioned last summer by Science Minister Kirsty Duncan to examine the state of fundamental science in Canada’s research institutions and to recommend improvements. The panel concludes that Canada was falling behind other countries on a variety of benchmarks, such as research output and international prizes.

To help reverse that trend, the panel recommends a CAD$1.3 billion boost in funding over the next 4 years for the country’s three main research funding councils as well as its main research infrastructure funder. But the top priority is a CAD$485 million increase for curiosity-driven research, after several years of money having been diverted to support more applied research seen as having a more immediate economic payoff. ”Restoring the balance … is central to reinvigorating Canadian scholarship and science,” Naylor says.

The panel’s recommendations have been warmly welcomed. “The recommended increase in funding for investigator-led research really echoes a lot of our concerns,” says Kathleen Walsh, interim executive director of the science campaign group Evidence for Democracy in Ottawa.

Paul Dufour, who studies science policy at the University of Ottawa, says a funding boost could help Canada take advantage of the uncertainty that has arisen in the scientific community after the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. “Canada has an interesting opportunity to increase our brand around the world by investing in investigator-led fundamental research,” he says.

The report does not focus just on funding but also sets out ways to make the funding system more effective overall by improving coordination and evaluation. It calls on the government to set up a National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation, which will help coordinate the work of not only the main funding councils but also the profusion of smaller agencies, initiatives, and institutes that have sprung up over the past 20 years.

“We want to create a sustainable mechanism to bring order to this cacophony,” Naylor says. “If there is no oversight—no expert group asked to opine on the latest government brain wave—[those other entities] will continue to proliferate, and those that have outlived their usefulness will never be wound down.”

Dufour agrees that improved coordination is important, but he notes that much of that will be up to researchers themselves. “We’ve been over this ground before; it will require effective political leadership and buy-in from the research community,” he says. “That has been lacking in the past.”

The Trudeau government has yet to officially respond to the report, beyond a few generally positive tweets, but Naylor is optimistic that its most important ideas will make their way into future policy. “This is a young government that has nailed its colors to the mast for science and innovation,” he says. “I think if any government is going to do it, it will be this one.”