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Survey reveals basic research in Canada is falling by the wayside

The number of researchers who work on basic-science questions has dropped precipitously.

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Canada's falling investment in basic research has hit the natural sciences especially hard.

The number of scientists who report conducting purely fundamental research in Canada dropped from 24% to 1.6% between 2006 and 2015, according to a survey released on 28 June. The analysis reveals researchers’ frustration with the country’s long-term shift towards the support of applied research over basic science.

The survey was conducted by the Global Young Academy — an international organization made up of 200 early-career scientists that was founded in Berlin in 2010 as a counterpart to national senior-scientist academies. Academy member Julia Baum, a biologist at the University of Victoria in Canada, spearheaded the investigation, which compiled the views of more than 1,300 Canadian researchers who completed an online survey.

“Every academic can unequivocally tell you that the landscape of funding for basic research in Canada has been changed and damaged beyond recognition over the past decade,” said an anonymous survey participant, according to the report.

The results hammer home the message of the Fundamental Science Review, a report commissioned by the federal government that was released in April: Canada is investing too little in basic science, and is falling behind internationally (see 'Downward trend').

Canada is the only G8 country where research investments as a proportion of gross domestic product have shown a clear downwards trend, the report notes, from nearly 2% in 2005 to 1.6% in 2014. “That’s pathetic,” says Baum. Basic researchers in the country have also faced a 35% drop in available funds per person since 2013, she says: the number of researchers has increased but funding and the number of available grants hasn’t kept pace.

These long-term declines in funding have left researchers dispirited, says Baum. “These scientists felt Canada used to be a wonderful place to do research,” she says, but that it’s no longer the case for their students. “Science is no longer seen as a viable career option.”

Holding onto hope

The report recommends a baseline rise of Can$459 million (US$352 million) to the country’s three main granting bodies, which fund the natural, health and social sciences. That would give researchers the same level of support they enjoyed, per person, in 2005. This is in line with the Fundamental Science Review’s recommendations.

Canadian researchers hold out hope that the left-centre Liberal government, which was elected in 2015 with a pro-science platform, will bring change. More than two-thirds of survey respondents said that they think that fundamental research is important to the federal government.

But scientists haven’t seen much money mobilized in this direction yet. The Liberals gave Canada’s three main granting bodies a much-needed Can$76 million boost in their 2016 budget — but in an unusual and controversial move, didn't increase their budgets in 2017.

Science minister Kirsty Duncan told Nature that she is working to improve things for researchers in Canada. She will be moving ahead with some of the Fundamental Science Review’s recommendations, including formalizing coordination between the granting councils and forming a review panel for big international science projects. She will also be introducing legislation to fix the leadership of the health-research granting agency. But “I can’t undo ten years of cuts in one budget cycle”, Duncan says. “That’s going to take time.”

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  1. Avatar for Donald Forsdyke
    Donald Forsdyke
    THE SAME OLD CIRCUS Yes, "the landscape of funding for basic research in Canada has been changed and damaged beyond recognition over the past decade." However, this trend began long ago and a group calling itself "Canadians for Responsible Research Funding" organized meetings, published papers, submitted briefs to granting councils, made a formal oral presentation to a key Federal government committee, and one member even published a book. Apart from getting the granting councils to demand from Canadian research institutions that they have in place a formal code of research conduct, all this was to no avail. Indeed, as noted, the situation has deteriorated even further. Sadly, I suspect, the circus we went through will be repeated again by Canadian members of the Global Young Academy, again to no avail. We have, however, left behind some clues as to how real progress might be made (see Peer Review Webpages .
  2. Avatar for Jeremy Kerr
    Jeremy Kerr
    The report this news piece discusses is "Restoring Canada's competitive in fundamental research: the view from the bench". It can be found here: <em></em> Julia Baum, Megan Dodd, Kristina Tietjen, and I wrote it over the last 18 months or so and it includes responses by 1300+ Canadian researchers to challenges experienced up to 2015, focusing especially on the decade leading up to then. We note the progress made recently in turning the research ship around in Canada and the distance we have yet to go. Canadian researchers are working hard to make the case for research and its benefits for Canada.
  3. Avatar for Pentcho Valev
    Pentcho Valev
    Fundamental science, at least fundamental physics, is dead. Everybody knows that so it is natural for funding to stop and for researchers to disappear: Peter Woit: "I think the worst thing that has happened to theoretical physics over the past 25 years is this descent into ideology, something that has accelerated with the multiverse mania of the last 10-15 years." Correct, except for the number 25 - it should be replaced by 112: "This paper investigates an alternative possibility: that the critics were right and that the success of Einstein's theory in overcoming them was due to its strengths as an ideology rather than as a science. The clock paradox illustrates how relativity theory does indeed contain inconsistencies that make it scientifically problematic. These same inconsistencies, however, make the theory ideologically powerful. [...] The gatekeepers of professional physics in the universities and research institutes are disinclined to support or employ anyone who raises problems over the elementary inconsistencies of relativity. A winnowing out process has made it very difficult for critics of Einstein to achieve or maintain professional status. Relativists are then able to use the argument of authority to discredit these critics. Were relativists to admit that Einstein may have made a series of elementary logical errors, they would be faced with the embarrassing question of why this had not been noticed earlier. Under these circumstances the marginalisation of antirelativists, unjustified on scientific grounds, is eminently justifiable on grounds of realpolitik. Supporters of relativity theory have protected both the theory and their own reputations by shutting their opponents out of professional discourse. [...] The triumph of relativity theory represents the triumph of ideology not only in the profession of physics bur also in the philosophy of science." Peter Hayes, The Ideology of Relativity: The Case of the Clock Paradox Pentcho Valev
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