If history is any guide, Canadian Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan may have just set loose the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons by appointing former University of Toronto President David Naylor to lead a study of basic science in Canada.
The nine-member expert panel named today will examine the impact of a decade of policies under the previous prime minister, Stephen Harper, aimed at converting university labs into tools for industrial development and commercialization. Duncan took office in November 2015 as part of the Liberal government headed by Justin Trudeau, who has promised to run a “government that believes in science—and a government that believes that good scientific knowledge should inform decision-making.”
Naylor expects the panel to review “the whole ecosystem, without drawing sharp lines between what is basic and applied.” He thinks that previous calls to focus government funding on a handful of areas or disciplines would be “premature [because] those areas may change over time pretty quickly.” He is more concerned about “the balance between transdisciplinary and primary disciplinary research, or the balance between supporting trainees and new investigators versus our investment in established investigators.”
The panel, which is expected to report by the end of this year, will undertake a review of the nation’s three granting councils, as well as programs like the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), Canada Research Chairs, and Genome Canada. Duncan’s call for a “holistic assessment” is nothing short of an ideal situation for the likes of Naylor, whose lengthy list of credentials includes a stint as founding chief executive officer for the highly lauded Institute of Clinical Evaluative Sciences, and chairmanship of the National Advisory Committee on SARS and Public Health, whose report led to the creation of both a Public Health Agency of Canada and a national chief public health officer. A physician and medical researcher, Naylor was president of the University of Toronto for 8 years before retiring in 2013 at the age of 59.
Last year, Naylor chaired a task force on health care innovation appointed by Harper whose report, Unleashing Innovation: Excellent Healthcare for Canada, so angered the Conservative government that it refused to allow him to hold a press conference to announce his findings. Among its recommendations were measures to overhaul federal oversight and regulation of several aspects of health care, particularly pharmaceuticals, and to shut down three agencies: Canada Health Infoway, the Canadian Foundation for Healthcare Improvement, and the Canadian Patient Safety Institute. In its place would be a $1 billion Health Innovation Fund and a Healthcare Innovation Agency of Canada. In 2011, Naylor served on a blue-ribbon panel that urged a complete overhaul of business innovation programs, on which the government now spends more than $5 billion per year.
Those recommendations, like the hundreds of others that have emerged from countless science reviews past, were also duly ignored. But they established Naylor’s reputation for pulling no punches. Another proponent of change in aspects of Canada’s approach to basic science, Nobel laureate Art McDonald, former director of the Sudbury Neutrino Laboratory, has also been appointed to the expert panel. He has, in particular, advocated the provision of operating funds for new labs created through CFI funding.
Naylor says the panel has “no preconceptions about either the level of funding or the optimum architecture.” But he personally thinks that the research councils have been buffeted by unreasonable expectations to be both supporters of fundamental research and engines for commercialization of new technologies. “I think we have to get clear about what our expectations are and to ask ourselves, whether we want each and every agency to be all things to all people. … If the mandate is that expansive, then the budgets will tend to be expansive as well, and if the budgets aren’t expansive, then there will be problems of resource allocation. All that says: Let’s align missions, mandates, and budgets in an intelligent and strategic way and then figure out where we go from there.”
Duncan says the government has set no preconditions on the scope of panel inquiry. “We want to be sure that the programs we have are meeting the needs of our scientists,” she says, after a decade in which researchers were “silenced and ignored.”