Funding the Fundamentals: The State of Scientific Research in Canada

Sheldon Gordon
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Former U of T president David Naylor (1974 UC) likes to refer to the field of artificial intelligence (AI) as an example of what can happen when Canada under-funds basic scientific research.

“In the 1980s and 1990s, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) did something bold,” he says. “While the rest of the world was sceptical about open-ended machine-based learning and focused on computer science that was based on programs written by humans, CIFAR pushed ahead with AI, to enable machines to learn more independently.”

This was seen as very high-risk at the time, but Canada quickly became a hot-bed for AI, he says. “Fast forward 10 or 15 years, and we are producing the best talent in the world in what has become a very hot area. But because we did not invest in research, we did not provide opportunities either for commercialization of the research we were doing or for scientists to continue working in this field in academe.”

The result was that Canada's leading AI researchers moved to the US, where they became prominent in Facebook, Google, Uber and other high-tech companies. The last federal budget restored funding to AI-related research and Canada is trying to repatriate some of its AI talent. “But this is a perfect microcosm of what happens when you fail to capitalize on investments that have been made, where you define an area and let others capitalize on it.”

When Kirsty Duncan (BA 1986 UC), Canada’s Minister of Science, launched a comprehensive review of federal support for fundamental science—the first such review in over four decades—she appointed Naylor, professor of medicine, to head the blue-ribbon panel of experts.

The panel undertook a broad consultative process, receiving 1,275 written submissions from individuals, associations, and organizations. It also held a dozen round tables in five cities, engaging some 230 researchers at different career stages. Its report, Investing in Canada's Future: Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research, was published in April.

Naylor's panel highlighted a drop of more than 30% in real-dollar terms per capita funding for independent or investigator-led research in Canada's universities, colleges, institutes, and research hospitals. This drop was due to caps on federal funding to the granting councils (for health, science and engineering, and social sciences) and a shift in funding toward applied science and partnership-oriented research.

Scholars applying to the councils are either highly unlikely to win research grants—or will win them at inadequate levels, says Naylor. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) now has success rates under 15%. “Many peer nations think that a competition that is at that level begins to turn into a lottery,” he says. “What [the panel's round tables] heard from younger and older scholars alike is that they were seeing individuals who had gone years without external funding and were basically giving up.”

On the other hand, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) has maintained higher success rates for applicants, but only by capping its grants at around $35,000, which “Is not even enough to pay for a post-doctoral fellow, let alone to supply that individual with the wherewithal to do experiments.”

Naylor is also concerned that funding from federal government sources now accounts for less than 25% of total spending on research in higher education. While relative to GDP, Canada leads the G7 nations in total research outlays by the post-secondary sector, institutions themselves now fund 50% of these costs.

“Look at small countries such as Singapore, Australia, and the Netherlands that are outperforming Canada on a per capita basis in research,” he says. “None of them has this kind of funding profile.”

The problem with Canadian institutions funding such a high proportion of their research is that the money largely comes out of tuition fees and provincial grants. That leaves less money for undergraduate education. “You find that your research universities tend to have large classes,” he says.

The Naylor panel recommended a major infusion of federal cash for basic research, calling for an increase to $4.8-billion from $3.5-billion over four years—an annual average growth rate of 9%. Is that too ambitious a target?

Naylor notes that from 2000-2001 to 2007-08, total granting council spending grew at about 9% annually for seven years. The proposed new spending would occur over four years, and would be somewhat lower on an annualized basis because the seven-year figure is calculated in constant dollars. “The federal budget is now over $300-billion per year,” he says. “We're talking growth of only 0.1% per annum of that budget being redirected to research.”

If Canada would like “to continue to fall further behind [other countries], try staying at the current level. If you'd like to catch up, you're going to have to invest the money that we're recommending.”


Federal Investments in Science

“We've had a good year in science,” says Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan (BA 1986 UC), as she lists some of her initiatives. “We've put in place new equity and diversity requirements for both the Canada Excellence Research Chairs and the Canada Research Chairs.” She also recently launched the Canada 150 Research Chairs, one-time funding designed to attract 25 internationally esteemed researchers and Canadian expats who wish to relocate to Canada.

The search is on to fill the newly restored post of Chief Science Advisor (CSA), a role that the Harper government had eliminated. (The CSA's main function, as defined in the job description, will be to advise the government on how to ensure that research conducted in federal labs is fully available to the public, that scientists are able to speak freely about their work, and that scientific analyses are considered when Ottawa makes decisions.)

As for new federal dollars for research, Duncan cites the $950 million committed for 2017 – 2022 to support business-led innovation superclusters—“which of course academia will be involved with”; $221 million in funding over five years for Mitacs’s work-integrated learning programs to provide 10,000 internships per year to post-secondary students; and a $125-million Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy for research and talent, administered by CIFAR.  

“That's on top of 2016's investment of $2-billion for improving research and innovation infrastructure at universities and colleges,” she says, noting that, “some of our labs are 25 years old. And we made the largest investments in the three granting councils in a decade.”

Duncan then broaches the expert panel's review. Praising it as a “comprehensive, rigorous, thoughtful report,” she adds: “The majority of its 35 recommendations I agree with.” But in response to the key proposal of a four-year, $1.3-billion increase for the granting councils, she says: “I have to be realistic, too. There was 10 years of science being gutted by the previous government. I can't rebuild that in four years.”

She does support the report's proposal for a board to align the granting agencies, and promises to take action on that. “The granting councils are working together, and we're going to make sure the Canada Foundation for Innovation is included with that, and that the CSA is included as well as the president of the National Research Council. We want it to be more coordinated.”

Duncan is also open to the expert panel's proposal for a National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation. “Do I think that's important? Absolutely.” The structure of such a Council, however, remains an open question.