When the Liberals unveiled their newest federal budget in March, there was a strong focus on skill development and the future of work. Notable, too, were investments in science and research, including
- $114 million over five years (with $26.5 million per year ongoing) to the federal granting councils in new scholarship funding for master’s- and doctoral-level researchers;
- added support for a diverse range of people to attend post-secondary studies, including Indigenous students and low-income individuals;
- $500 million for research and science outreach organizations; and
- a planned Strategic Science Fund for funding and assessing third-party research organizations guided by a new principle-based framework to increase transparency and accountability.
Many in the research community are pleased to see the new funding for graduate student scholarships, viewing this as addressing a major outstanding recommendation from the 2017 report of the Fundamental Science Review, known as the Naylor Report. Led by Dr. David Naylor and a panel of experts, the government-commissioned review took stock of Canada’s fundamental science and research ecosystem, making several substantial recommendations that highlighted gaps in the ecosystem, and proposed ways to move forward in support of science and research for Canada.
With the announcement of Budget 2019, it appears that the government may be starting to think that its work on the Naylor Report is complete. A recent email from Science and Sport Minister Kirsty Duncan’s office to a member of the research community noted that the new investment in scholarships would “finalize implementation of recommendations of the Fundamental Review of Science.” This might just be poor wording, or it might be a signal that the government now considers the Naylor recommendations to have been fully achieved.
Have we “finalized” the recommendations from the Naylor Report?
Looking back over the past two years, it’s clear that the federal government has been using the report as a road map. Since 2017, many big steps have been taken in direct support of Naylor’s recommendations. Budget 2018 made significant investments in fundamental science for Canada. They included
- $925 million over five years to the federal granting councils;
- new funding for interdisciplinary and fast-breaking research;
- $231.3 million over five years ($58.8 million a year ongoing) to the Research Support Fund;
- $763 million to the Canada Foundation for Innovation ($462 million a year ongoing starting in 2023);
- a streamlining of federal innovation programs; and
- $210 million over five years ($50 million a year ongoing) to the Canada Research Chairs program.
Budget 2018 also included several actions to support early-career and diverse researchers, a key Naylor Report recommendation.
Alongside Budget 2018, the government continued to move the Naylor Report needle forward:
- In September 2017, a Chief Science Advisor was appointed to provide advice on science to the Prime Minister and the Science Minister.
- In January 2019, the government announced a call for candidates and proposed a new Council on Science and Innovation to replace the former Science, Technology and Innovation Council.
- A coordinating body across the federal granting councils was created to improve coordination across the federal funding ecosystem.
- There have been several initiatives to improve diversity in the research community, including the made-in-Canada draft Athena-SWAN charter designed “to encourage and recognize commitments made by post-secondary institutions towards advancing equity, diversity and inclusion in the research community.”
Following on these important steps, Budget 2019 made further progress with the Naylor recommendations, with the new investments in graduate student scholarships. But there is still much to be done.
Let’s take the new funding for fundamental research, for example: Budget 2018’s new investment in “core” open competition programs via the granting councils was significant ($690 million over the first four years), but it was only roughly 60 percent of Naylor’s original recommendation ($1.2 billion over four years).
The same can be said for Budget 2019’s investment in graduate scholarships: $114 million over five years is roughly 63 percent of Naylor’s recommendation of $140 million over four years. While 60 percent is substantial, it’s still a far distance from full implementation.
There are still gaps for trainees, including new funding for postdoctoral fellows, harmonizing award amounts across the federal granting councils and completing a full renovation and expansion of the Canada Research Chairs program, which attracts and retains research leaders, all important steps to creating an equal and supported ecosystem for research trainees.
As well, although high numbers of applications for the new strategic New Frontiers in Research Fund indicate an appetite for fast-breaking, interdisciplinary research, there are concerns among the community that approval rates will be low, indicating possible challenges moving forward.
Another major missing piece in fully implementing the report is additional investment in the Research Support Fund, which supports all the additional costs associated with doing research that aren’t project-specific, including administration and lab maintenance. These indirect costs are calculated as a percentage of the amount of grant money an organization receives.
On average, research institutions in Canada receive grants from the Research Support Fund at a rate of 21 percent, while studies show that the real costs are 40 to 60 percent. The Naylor Report highlighted that the fund’s levels in Canada are woefully inadequate and below levels provided by other countries. It recommended increasing the reimbursement rate to 40 percent, a number that was not met by new funding for the fund in Budget 2018 or Budget 2019.
Several other recommendations from the report have also fallen short of full completion. For example, the Naylor Report recommends that the Chief Science Advisor along with the Privy Council “examine mechanisms to achieve improved whole-of-government coordination and collaboration for intramural research and evidence-based policy-making.”
Though several new initiatives have emerged in the government in support of evidence-informed decision-making, such as explicit requirements for the use of evidence in ministerial mandate letter requirements, formation of the Deputy Minister Science Committee and the mandate of the Chief Science Advisor, a more formal investigation into evidence-informed decision-making in practice is still outstanding.
As well, while the proposed new Council on Science and Innovation appears to be a direct response to the Naylor recommendation to form a National Advisory Council on Science and Innovation, the council has not yet been staffed, nor is the mandate clear. It will be important to continue monitoring the progress on this new council to determine whether it aligns with Naylor’s recommendations.
Lastly, there are a few Naylor recommendations that have not been addressed by the government at all.
This includes creation of a special Standing Committee on Major Research Facilities to advise the government on coordination and oversight for the life cycle of federally supported facilities; and implementing requirements for matching funds to support independent research.
As well, the Naylor Report made several important suggestions to improve coordination between federal, provincial and municipal levels of government, including recommending that planning begin in 2017 for a First Ministers’ Conference on Research Excellence. Although Canada has put an emphasis on skill development, there is poor coordination between various levels of government with regard to determining the specific trainees we will need as Canada transitions to a knowledge-based economy. Better pan-Canadian coordination could help address this.
The Naylor Report was commissioned in light of a widely acknowledged stagnation of our fundamental science capacity in recent years. Far from advocating for a radical transformation and massive expansion in funding, the report’s recommendations represent necessary steps for maintaining a strong foundation of science and research to ensure all Canadians continue to benefit from its outputs.
With several of the report’s critical recommendations still outstanding, it is important that we don’t lose sight of the end of the road.
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