The long-awaited report from the Advisory Panel on Federal Support for Fundamental Science is both a roadmap and an alarm bell.

Based on more than 1,200 written submissions and a dozen round tables with 230 researchers, it charts the way forward for Canada’s research ecosystem. And it is unequivocal about what will happen if we don’t take action immediately.

“We” in this case means everyone from government funders to universities to individual researchers. We all have a stake in seeing Canada’s capacity for research excellence restored, and we cannot afford to get hung up on getting it perfect. It is urgent that we start to address Canada’s research funding shortfall.

What’s at stake

In the last 10 years, federal investment in Canadian research innovation has dropped, lagging behind other nations. Real per-capita funding for independent or investigator-led research has fallen by 30 percent. Federal support for R&D in higher education makes up less than 25 percent of total spending —making Canada an international outlier.

Yes, we have 1 percent of the world’s population and produce 4 percent of all scientific papers. We’ve made ground-breaking, globally recognized breakthroughs in physics, genomics, astronomy, IT technology and clinical medicine. In 2015 alone, Canadian researchers were awarded 24 major international scientific prizes. But we cannot be lulled into a false sense that everything will be fine because of the country’s history of punching above its weight on the international stage.

The truth is, we’re not just struggling to keep up — we’re measurably starting to fall behind. Programs like Canada Research Chairs have seen their funding levels stagnate since 2000 — outpaced by inflation, our peers and the growing number of applicants. In 2006, Canadian universities ranked third in research and development spending among OECD nations, relative to our GDP.

We’re at risk of squandering our potential, of wasting the momentum we’ve built. We know we have the talent, the technology, the infrastructure and the academic strength to lead the world in innovations and discoveries that can improve the quality of life of not only Canadians, but of people around the globe. We’ve seen that; we’ve proved it.

Without the right support, the next generation of researchers won’t be able to reach their potential — and we’ve invested in them already, not only in terms of projects, facilities and education, but also in terms of promoting inclusivity and equality. This is the most diverse class we’ve ever had. Their capacity for success is immense. But the right support must be unleashed.

First requirement is funding

The Advisory Panel’s report, Investing in Canada’s Future: Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research, provides the evidence we need to support changes in policy, and it also offers concrete suggestions for what those changes might be. First and foremost, the federal government needs to start reinvesting in research as soon as possible, so we can put Canada’s best minds to work here at home.

Right now, universities are footing more than 50 percent of research costs, which is affecting both research and education. An increased commitment from the federal government will allow us to not only improve the quality and quantity of projects in universities across the country, but also to boost the quality of education for the next generation of scientists and scholars. The report recommends an increase in federal funding from $3.5 billion to $4.8 billion over the next four years.

There are other important recommendations, including structural changes that would make funding easier to access and improve communication among Canada’s four federal funding agencies. Universities support the idea of greater coordination. But the most urgent need is reinvestment, now. The next generation is ready to be inspired, supported and guided toward reaching its potential to make Canada a global powerhouse in research, benefiting communities across Canada.

Global challenges like climate change, income inequality, infectious diseases and human migration demand creative solutions. At a time where minds and borders are closing, Canada has an opportunity to retake its place as a world leader in groundbreaking research. We have the proof. We have the plan. Now it’s time to act.

Photo: Universities Canada

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Paul Davidson
Paul Davidson has played leadership roles in government, the private sector and the voluntary sector for more than 25 years. He joined Universities Canada in May 2009 as president and CEO, following seven years as executive director of World University Service of Canada.

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