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Canada’s basic science at risk of fading away, report argues

Canada’s scientific enterprise is at risk of sinking to junk bond status as a result of a funding crunch and misguided government and granting council policies, argues a report released today.

In particular, the authors decry a steady shift away from basic science that has left a smaller portion of the nation’s growing scientific community focused on fundamental research.

“Dismantling fundamental research support has changed the very nature of how science is conducted in Canada,” according to the report from the Global Young Academy, an international society. It urges the Canadian government to inject a minimum of $352 million into the budgets of the nation’s three granting councils in the coming year. It also wants federal spending on basic research to be directly tied to “the number of active researchers in the Canadian research ecosystem”—which has been growing, even as funding has stagnated.

Kirsty Duncan, science minister in Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, says the report helps highlight the need for a “national conversation on science and science funding.” But she stopped short of endorsing any of the report’s specific recommendations, arguing that there is no quick fix. “We have to be realistic,” she told ScienceInsider. “We had 10 years of science being gutted [under the previous Conservative government of Stephen Harper], of scientists being cut. … [But] it’s our government’s job to balance the needs of the research community with the needs of Canadians.”

An “accumulated hole”

The report—Restoring Canada’s Competitiveness in Fundamental Research: The View from the Bench—offers plenty of sobering findings for fans of basic research.

Support for fundamental research from the Canada’s three funding councils—the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)—declined from 67% of total expenditures in 2005 to 48% by 2015.

A survey of 1303 Canadian researchers conducted in conjunction with the study indicated that, between 2006 and 2015, “the proportion of researchers who only conducted fundamental research collapsed, declining from 24% to 1.6%.” Over the same period, those who reported conducting no applied research declined from 47% to 25%.

The erosion of support for basic research has forced many scientists to “narrow the scope of questions that can be asked and diminish the quality,” of their work, says Julia Baum, associate professor of biology at the University of Victoria in Canada and lead author of the report.

The upshot is an “accumulated hole that that Canada has dug for itself in terms of capacity to lead either nationally or internationally in fundamental research,” says University of Ottawa professor of biology Jeremy Kerr, a report co-author.

Growing community

The shift away from basic research is a function of a number of factors, Kerr and Baum say, including the Harper government’s push for more applied research in partnership with industry. There’s also greater competition for basic science grants as a result of a growing number of academic scientists. The number of natural scientists and engineers, for instance, grew by 35% to about 32,000 between 2005 and 2013, the report notes, while the number of social scientists grew by 43% to nearly 29,000.

The resulting increase in applications, coupled with policy decisions like one at CIHR to give larger grants to an elite core of researchers, has caused success rates to plummet. At CIHR, just 14% of basic science applications won funding in 2014, down from 28% in 2005. At SSHRC, success rates dropped from 40% to 23%. At NSERC, rates declined to 32.5% from 42.9% between 2005 and 2011.

Kerr says the idea of funneling greater resources to so-called scientific stars to maximize scientific productivity has been discredited as “policy level naiveté.” Rather, he argues, “If you want to have a huge and disproportionate effect on the scientific productivity of a nation, fund a lot of people modestly.”

Kerr and Baum also believe the federal government should align funding with the number of scientists, which has risen because of higher enrollments at Canadian universities. “The ship as directed by the federal granting councils is sailing off in one direction, which is stagnation and erosion, [while] the provincial research directions have been toward growth.”

The report’s call for more coordination between the federal and provincial governments echoes a recent recommendation from a blue-ribbon panel chaired by former University of Toronto President David Naylor. It also urged a $372 million hike for basic research in its report.

Baum and Kerr hope the long-overdue appointment of a national science adviser will eventually nudge the governing Liberals toward implementing new funding policies. Duncan says that appointment is imminent.