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Billion-dollar boost sought for Canadian science

Highly anticipated independent review also calls for better oversight and coordination of government research spending.

The Canadian government should increase its support for fundamental science by more than a third, from Can$3.5 billion per year to Can$4.8 billion, according to a long-awaited independent review of the country’s research priorities and funding.

“Major reinvestments are urgently required,” members of the panel, known as the Fundamental Science Review, said in a report released on 10 April. It also recommends the creation of several new bodies to coordinate and oversee government-funded research.

That advice might prove hard to swallow. Although Canada’s three major granting agencies and a research-support fund received a record-breaking Can$95-million boost in 2016, their funding stayed flat in the 2017 budget that the government released last month. The science review recommends increases for those three agencies, as well as a handful of other programmes, that would amount to Can$325 million per year for four years.

"The economy is growing. The population is growing. I can’t imagine a better set of circumstances for the government to follow where it has been promising," says David Naylor, the chair of the science review and former president of the University of Toronto.

The left-leaning Liberal government launched the analysis in June 2016 to evaluate how basic science is organized and supported in Canada — the first such broad external review since the 1970s. The document describes Canada’s “sobering” international standing in science funding. Basic researchers have faced a 35% drop in available funds per capita since 2013, the analysis concludes, making it hard for the country to compete “even with smaller peers such as Australia and Switzerland”.

And many government programmes aren’t keeping pace with inflation. The Canada Research Chair initiative is designed to attract top-flight international scholars to the country's universities, but the value of its individual awards has stagnated at Can$200,000 since 2000 — and in that time, the percentage of international recruits has fallen significantly. Canada's spending on research and development, as a percentage of GDP, has declined over the same period while the United States and Japan have increased the portion of their GDP that goes to science.

Wish list

We have had a war on science in this country,” says Kennedy Stewart, who tracks science issues for the New Democratic Party, the left-wing opposition to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s middle-left Liberals. “We have had lots of rhetoric from this government about reinstating science. Now it has to put its money where its mouth is.” But it is not clear whether the government can fulfil the panel’s recommendations before the next federal election in 2019, Stewart adds.

The review panel calls for an independent national council on research and innovation to advise the prime minister and watch over government science funding. It would replace the controversial Science, Technology and Innovation Council, which provides confidential reports to government and has no independent authority.

The science review also recommends starting a board to forge a coherent strategy between the three major funding agencies for natural, health and social sciences — for example, to ensure that younger researchers get their fair share of grants. The new board would also oversee the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which supports science infrastructure and which the science review recommends giving a steady annual budget. The review also proposes a standing committee to sort out funding for major science projects, including international efforts such as the Thirty Meter Telescope.

“I was a little disappointed they didn’t call for more consolidation; we have a proliferation of programmes,” says James Woodgett, a biomedical researcher and director of research at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute in Toronto. “But a big theme here is integration.”

Woodgett is helping to coordinate a meeting of 250 researchers in late May to discuss the report’s findings and help translate it into action. “They’ve really handed the baton over — to government and to us,” he says.

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Jones, N. Billion-dollar boost sought for Canadian science. Nature (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature.2017.21816

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