06.07.2017 - Natural Sciences Sector

Canada rehabilitating government science

© Howard Sandler / Shutterstock.com, Wind tunnel at the National Research Council of Canada in 2012.

Canada celebrated its 150th anniversary on 1 July 2017. Since the federal election in late 2015 brought a Liberal government to power after almost a decade of a Conservative administration, science and technology have been central to the country’s rebranding. Here, Paul Dufour, Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa and author of the chapter on Canada in the UNESCO Science Report, reviews some key policy developments in Canadian science since the report was published 19 months ago.

Since coming to power, the Trudeau government has embraced the dictum of valuing and respecting science and scientists. This is epitomized by the introduction of a new performance indicator which will see Cabinet ministers being judged henceforward on how well they use evidence to inform decision-making.

A review of basic research in Canada

Also of note is that the Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan, has commissioned the first review in decades of Canada’s support system for basic research. The high-level expert panel was led by former University of Toronto president David Naylor.

The Naylor report was published in April this year. It argues for several changes to Canada’s ‘research ecosystem’, including the creation of a National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation (NACRI) that would work closely with Canada’s new Chief Science Advisor. The report recommends, for instance, that the Chief Science Advisor convene a special committee on major research facilities to advise NACRI and the federal government (this builds on a previous effort by the former National Science Advisor in 2006).

In her mandate letter from the prime minister, the science minister was asked to appoint the country’s first Chief Science Officer since the post of National Science Advisor was abolished in 2008. . (After a year-long round of consultations, the prime minister announced the nomination of Dr Mona Nemer as Chief Science Officer on 26 September 2017).

The Naylor report also proposes creating a Four Agency Coordinating Board which would be chaired by the Chief Science Advisor and report to both the ministers of science and health. These four agencies are the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, the Social Science and Humanities Research Council and the Canada Foundation for Innovation. The report suggests three priority items for the new board’s agenda: a review of best practices for helping early career researchers; an amendment of the terms of the Networks of Centres of Excellence programme to foster collaborative, multi-centre strength in basic research; and the development of strategies for strengthening international partnerships and multidisciplinary research.

In terms of funding priorities, the Naylor report advocates creating a tri-council strategic plan to provide long-term support for indigenous researchers and rapidly increase investment in research led by independent investigators to redress the current imbalance. It also advises gradually increasing funding for the Research Support Fund (indirect costs) until the reimbursement rate amounts to 40% for all institutions with more than CAN$ 7 million per year of eligible funding.

Under the previous Harper administration, federal science had been targeted for cuts. After rising modestly between 2003 and 2009, ‘federal in-house R&D became a casualty of the government’s determination to balance the budget through its Economic Action Plan (2010)’, recalls the UNESCO Science Report (2015). This caused federal research spending to sag from CAN$ 6 467 to $ 5 920 million between 2010 and 2013, according to preliminary data.

With business research spending unable to compensate for the drop, Canada’s research effort shrank from 2% of GDP in 2004 to 1.62% of GDP in 2014 before recovering to 1.74% of GDP in 2015, according to Statistics Canada. This compares with an average of 2.42% among members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2013.

A 2014 report of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada catalogued scientists’ ‘concern that a recent shift in budget priorities towards greater support for commercial ventures would be detrimental to basic science and public interest science’. It cited a slated ‘decrease in internal science and technology funding of CAN$ 162 million in 2013–2014, much of which was ‘devoted to public health, public safety and the environment, compared to a CAN$ 68 million increase in support for commercial ventures’.

Initial reactions to the Naylor report

On 3 July 2017, the science minister gave an interview to the Hill Times in which she outlined some of her reactions to the Naylor report, including the proposal that the granting agencies be coordinated formally. ‘The granting councils have been working together … and we want to formalize that’, she said. ‘I want to make sure we have a strong funding system that is coordinated, that is harmonized and that is sustainable, that can withstand a change of government and I’m playing the long game here to get it right’. She is expected to publish a mandate letter clarifying her expectations of this coordinating body.

With respect to the report’s advice on funding increases, the science minister argued that a decision on whether to accommodate the additional CAN$ 1.3 billion in annual research funding for research would be likely to wait until next year’s federal budget. ‘There were 10 years of cuts to science, 10 years of cutting scientists. It is not a quick fix here and it is going to take time to make up lost ground. You can’t do that in one budget cycle’.

Indeed, a report this year from the Global Young Academy assessing Canadian researcher views on directions for basic (fundamental) research argues that ‘the federal government should, at minimum, invest CAN $459 million in fundamental research programs at the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Social Science and Humanities Research Council and Canadian Institutes for Health Research’. It goes on to say that ‘while identifying the “correct” level of support that should be accessible to excellent Canadian researchers is beyond the scope of this report, working toward full recovery from the erosion of research support between 2005 and 2015 is a sensible starting point.’

Pending a more detailed government reaction to the Naylor report, the animated debate in Canada about the optimal balance between basic and applied research is likely to continue.

Federal investment in research expected to decline

In a speech to the Perimeter Institute on 15 April 2016, the prime minister noted that ‘the Government of Canada understands the central role science plays in a thriving economy. In addition to today’s announcement, Budget 2016 has boosted federal funding for science, and made significant investments in federal and university research labs to ensure Canada remains a world leader in global innovation’.

Despite the government’s upbeat rhetoric, federal spending on research and development (R&D) is actually expected to decline in the next few years. According to a new Statistics Canada survey, total spending on R&D and related scientific activities by federal government departments and agencies is expected to decrease by 1.2% to CAN $11.3 billion in 2017/2018, after rising for two consecutive years. The drop is attributable to a 6.7% decrease in spending on related scientific activities, while research spending, which accounts for 64% of the total, is expected to increase by 2.1% to CAN $7.3 billion. New data for 2017 and beyond will hopefully paint a better picture.

An economy based on clean technology and green jobs

Under the Harper government, a range of environmental research programmes were axed, including the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, which had been the leading federal advisory panel on sustainable development for the past 25 years. The Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences and the Ocean Contaminants and Marine Toxicology Program were other casualties of budget cuts.

A number of ongoing infrastructure projects were preserved by the Harper administration, however. One of these was the construction of a research hub in Canada’s vast Arctic region. This state of the art facility is now about to open in Cambridge Bay in Nunavut in the autumn. The Trudeau administration is developing a new agenda for the centre which involves working with the indigenous peoples who live in this hostile, challenging environment. The Canadian High Arctic Research Station will not only facilitate the gathering and exchange of knowledge ‘in the north, by the north and for the north’ but also engage with the international community. Researchers from around the world are already showing strong interest in collaborating with Canadians and learning more about indigenous knowledge of the Arctic.

Barely a month after taking office in November 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged, at the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP21) in Paris, to develop a sustainable economy based on clean technology and green jobs. Four months later, his government’s first budget honoured this pledge, allocating the equivalent of € 40.5 billion over the next ten years to the development of green technologies and a low carbon economy. In October 2016, Canada ratified the Paris Agreement on climate change. A former associate professor of health studies at the University of Toronto, the Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan, is described as being ‘passionate’ about building resilient communities and taking action on climate change.

Skills for today’s world of work

One concern raised by the UNESCO Science Report in 2015 was ‘the lack of a strong national agenda for talent and science education’ in Canada. The Trudeau government has adopted an Innovation and Skills Plan to reflect the way in which innovation is changing the way Canadians work. This agenda aims to increase the number of Canadians participating in work-integrated learning, increase business investment in training, improve access to global talent and give a greater number of Canadians the skills they need in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Over the next two years, a CAN $50 M programme called CanCode will be giving 500 000 pupils from kindergarten to grade 12 the opportunity to learn in-demand coding and digital skills that will prepare them for the job market. The programme is targeting young women, indigenous Canadians and other underrepresented groups keen to pursue careers in these fields. In parallel, the programme is equipping 500 teachers across the country to teach digital skills and coding.

Another concern raised by the UNESCO Science Report was the insufficient level of private-sector commitment to innovation. The Innovation and Skills Plan aims to simplify the many existing programmes to make these more centred around their ‘clients’, Canadian innovators. This is a long-standing issue that has already been addressed by previous governments, so it will be interesting to see whether this latest iteration is fully implemented.

The Innovation and Skills Plan plans to boost investment in business innovation and help bridge the commercialization gap in six key areas: advanced manufacturing, agri-food, clean technology, digital industries, health/bio-sciences and clean resources.

It plans to reinforce world-class research strengths at post-secondary institutions in areas such as quantum computing, stem cells and artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence has received CAN$ 125 million in the most recent budget for the establishment of a pan-Canadian network.

It also plans to increase the number of collaborations between industry, post-secondary institutions and research institutions and to help Canadian innovators find a first customer to test and validate their technologies through the federal government.

Support for superclusters

Last but not least, the Innovation and Skills Plan will be supporting a small number of business-led innovation ‘superclusters’ with a focus on innovative industries. A competitive fund has just been launched which represents the single largest injection of funds in science and technology by the Liberal government since it came to power in late 2015.

To qualify for the CAN $950 million five-year ‘superclusters’ fund, successful applicants must come from a business-led, non-profit consortium that matches federal funding with cash or in-kind contributions, a stipulation that has raised concern in light of the paucity of large firms (domestic or international) that are willing, or able, to commit the requisite CAN$ 100-200 million.

These industry-led consortia are expected to increase their investment in R&D and develop strategic plans to generate new companies and commercialize new products, processes and services that connect them to global supply chains, produce high-value goods and services and make them global market leaders.

Message to the world: we are hiring

The minister of science is inviting ‘the world’s scientists and scholars’ from all disciplines and at all career stages to apply to a new programme that would see them ‘bring their groundbreaking work to Canada.’ The Canada 150 Research Chairs Program is looking to attract 15–35 internationally based researchers to Canada, including Canadian expatriates who wish to return home. Over the course of their seven-year term, successful applicants would earn either CAN $350,000 or CAN $1 million per year. The recruitment exercise has been designed to coincide with Canada’s 150th anniversary.

The UNESCO Science Report cites a 2014 survey by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada which found that universities were deeply committed to internationalization. Fully 95% identified it as part of their strategic planning, 82% viewed it as one of their top five priorities and 89% of respondents said that the pace of internationalization on their campuses had accelerated (either greatly or somewhat) during the past three years.

For universities, ‘the most common top priority for internationalization was undergraduate student recruitment, identified by 45% universities as being their highest priority and by 70% as figuring among their top five priorities. The next top-rated priorities were to pursue strategic partnerships with universities overseas and to expand international academic research collaboration’.

A focus on gender equity

The Trudeau administration is focused on gender equity. Kirsty Duncan is only the second female science minister ever in Canada. The first was appointed in 1973 by the current prime minister’s father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

The Trudeau administration has not only appointed a gender-balanced Cabinet. It has also released the first-ever feminist development plan to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. Canada will be devoting 15% of its bilateral international development assistance to projects that specifically target gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls as their primary objective. Over the next five years, some CAN $150 million will be specifically devoted to local women’s organizations dedicated to promoting women’s rights and advancing women’s leadership and gender equality.

This is over and above the March 2017 announcement by Canada committing CAN$ 650 million over three years to improve the global maternal and newborn health initiative by funding an entire range of sexual and reproductive health services and defending the right of women to these services: sexuality education, family planning, contraception, safe and legal abortion and post abortion care.

Voluntary measures are not working

At home, the government’s gender equity drive aims to fill some longstanding gaps in the promotion of science for women and girls. Indeed, the science minister has argued that more needs to be done to address deficiencies on this front in some of the federal programmes – notably in the Canada Research Chairs programme.

At an address she gave to the powerful lobby group for Canadian universities on 26 April 2017, she noted that ‘the [Naylor] science report asserts there is a lot more work to be done in this area. In the academic community, we have all got to roll up our sleeves. The bottom line is, we are not where we need to be on diversity and equity. The panel is advising me to consider more coercive measures, if voluntary measures that are put in place do not yield results. In fact, the data I received when I was coming here today indicates just that. Voluntary measures are not working.’

Noting that there had been two times more men nominated than women in the last round of nominations for Canada Excellence Research Chairs in the autumn of 2016, the minister announced that ‘new equity requirements in the Canada Excellence Research Chairs competition’. She pledged to ‘explore other similar measures to encourage more diversity and equity in the research experience. If Canada is to achieve the greatest potential in research, we need all people to know they are welcomed in the lab, the field and the classroom’.

Canada’s granting councils, as well as others targeted by this challenge, have all responded by announcing their own efforts to address gender gaps.

Source: Paul Dufour, including excerpts from the chapter on Canada in the UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030 (2015)

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