Your Feedback Needed: Government of Canada Launches Review of Federal Support for Fundamental Science

Jun 22 2016 Published by under Canada, environment, Politics, Science in Canada

One of the key faults of the Harper Conservatives' science policy was their emphasis on applied research to the detriment of basic, curiosity driven research. Obviously there needs to be a balance between any government's approach to those two kinds of research, neither polar opposite is appropriate. But the Conservatives were way out of wack with their policy, significantly favouring commercially-driven, industrial-partnership-focused, applied research. The signature policy in that vein was their transformation of the National Research Council into a Concierge to Industry.

Thankfully the new Liberal government under Justin Trudeau looks to be addressing some of the issues with the NRC transformation.

And Science Minister Kirsty Duncan is launching a very significant review of federal government support of basic research! And part of that review is seeking input from interested parties, including me, you and all the other stakeholders in Canadian society.

They're set up a "panel of experts" to launch the review as well as a website with all the various relevant information about the review. The deadline for feedback is a bit nebulous but it appears that the review will continue at least into the fall.

A description of the review process from the press releaase:

There's the list of members of the panel. More information on the members at the link.

Robert Birgeneau, Chancellor Emeritus, University of California, Berkeley, California
Martha Crago, Vice President (Research) and Professor, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia
Mike Lazaridis, Co-Founder and Managing Partner, Quantum Valley Investments, Waterloo, Ontario
Claudia Malacrida, Associate Vice-President, Research, University of Lethbridge
Arthur (Art) McDonald, Nobel Laureate and Professor Emeritus, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario
David Naylor (Chair), Professor of Medicine and President Emeritus, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario
Martha C. Piper, Interim President and Vice Chancellor, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia
Rémi Quirion, Chief Scientist Officer, Quebec Government, Montreal, Quebec
Anne Wilson, Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Successful Societies Fellow and professor of psychology, Wilfrid Laurier University

And a description of the mandate of the review.

The panel has been provided with the following overall questions to consider as part of its review:

  1. Are there any overall program gaps in Canada's fundamental research funding ecosystem that need to be addressed?
  2. Are there elements or programming features in other countries that could provide a useful example for the Government of Canada in addressing these gaps?

Funding of fundamental research

The central question regarding the effectiveness and impact of the granting councils in supporting excellence in fundamental research is whether their approach, governance and operations have kept pace with an ever-changing domestic and global research landscape. Key questions for the review:

  1. Are granting councils optimally structured and aligned to meet the needs of the current research community in Canada? Are the current programs the most effective means of delivering the objectives of these organizations? And are they keeping pace internationally? The review should take into account the several reviews and evaluations that were performed in recent years on the councils and on science and scholarly inquiry in Canada.
  2. Are students, trainees and emerging researchers, including those from diverse backgrounds, facing unique barriers within the current system and, if so, what can be done to address those barriers?
  3. Is there an appropriate balance between funding elements across the research system, i.e. between elements involving people and other direct research costs, operating costs, infrastructure and indirect costs? What are best practices for assessing and adjusting balances over time?
  4. Are existing review processes rigorous, fair and effective in supporting excellence across all disciplines? Are they rigorous, fair and effective in supporting riskier research and proposals in novel or emerging research areas or multidisciplinary/multinational areas?
  5. Are granting council programs and structures sufficiently flexible to reflect and accommodate the growing internationalization of research? Are granting council programs and structures accommodating the full range of research areas; multidisciplinary research; and new approaches ranging from traditional knowledge, including indigenous research, to more open, collaborative forms of research? If not, what steps could be taken?

Funding of facilities/equipment

  1. Is the Canada Foundation for Innovation optimally structured to meet the needs of the current research community in Canada? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the current model in delivering the objectives of this organization, including its ability to work complementarily with the granting councils? What is the appropriate federal role in supporting infrastructure operating costs and how effective are current mechanisms in fulfilling that role?
  2. What are best practices (internationally/domestically) for supporting big science (including, inter alia, international facilities and international collaboration)?
  3. Many requests for government support for research are not tied to the cycles of the four major research agencies, but they have economic or competitive relevance nationally or regionally, or major non-governmental financial support, or implications for Canada's international standing as an active participant in big science projects or major multi-institutional projects. How can we ensure that the Government has access to the best advice about funding these types of projects in the future?

Funding of platform technologies

  1. What types of criteria and considerations should inform decisions regarding whether the Government should create a separate funding mechanism for emerging platform technologies and research areas of broad strategic interest and societal application? Are there any technologies that would appear to meet such criteria in the immediate term? When there is a rationale for separate funding, how to ensure alignment of funding approaches?
  2. Today's emerging platform technology may rapidly become a standard tool used tomorrow by a wide variety of researchers. If such technologies are initially given stand-alone support via a dedicated program or agency, what factors should inform decisions on when it would be appropriate to "mainstream" such funding back into the granting councils?


Additional advice

The panel will be expected to consult widely with the research community and to solicit input from relevant stakeholders—including universities, colleges and polytechnics, research hospitals, research institutes, industry, civil society—and the general public representing the diversity of views from across Canada. Those consultations and submissions may lead the panel to raise additional questions and offer additional advice to the Government. Such input will be welcomed.

There's also a Questions and Answers page and a feedback form. The Q&A page is where they discuss how the panel was formed and, in particular, that it will run through the fall but with no as yet no defined end date for the consultations.

Minister Duncan and the government have quite a job ahead of them. I haven't had a chance to really formulate my own feedback yet to either of those initiatives, but here are a few initial thoughts. I wish them all the luck and wisdom in tackling the review.

  • Open access and open data are important. The Tri-Agencies have an established Open Access Policy for Publications and a brand new Statement of Principles on Digital Data Management to frame the review of fundamental science. But one main criticism of these initiatives is that they place burdens on the research enterprise to publish more openly but without actually putting any resources into helping make that happen. I suggest that funding infrastructure for openness be considered one of the Platform Technologies that gets funded during the review. How should support for open access and digital data management plans get funded? Good question and I'm sure lots of people have lots of answers. Let's get working on it!
  • Library infrastructure is another Platform technology that needs to be properly funded. Science and other libraries were devastated under the Conservatives, as was Library and Archives Canada. Yes, I know we have the Federal Science Library project in progress and yes, we have a new head of LAC. I know that we already have three (!) reviews on going (see below). But given the devastation of the Conservative years, I think a review of Federal government library infrastructure is sorely needed.
  • The panel as constituted heavily leans towards established researchers with fancy titles and lots of experience. The review needs to make sure the voices of early career researchers are heard listened to, researchers who've come to Canada from other countries, women and other under-represented groups in STEM research. The panel also would benefit from perhaps some voices from outside Canada, like from National Science Foundation in the US, Max Planck Institutes in Germany. The Tri-Agencies could also be better represented. In other words, diversity across all axes needs to be baked into this process.
  • A detail, but the self-description fields in the feedback form are woefully inadequate to capture the feedback from all the various stakeholder groups who might wish to be heard. Sure Academic Administrator, Academic Faculty, Grad Student, Other Researcher and Other Interested Person (especially combined with sector affiliation) are a start, but I can't understand why fields such as Undergraduate Student, K-12 teacher, librarian, business person and at least a few other possibilities. I'm sure people will end up embedding it all into their comments anyway, but why not give more options in the form?

 

Here's the links again for the Fundamental Science Review:

 

And of course, the Fundamental Science review isn't the only review happening. What with a decade of Conservative mismanagement (i.e. torching) of everything even vaguely science and environment, the feds are also launching a consultation/review of their "innovation agenda," which is the flip side of the fundamental science coin. In other words, how to commercialise research and spur economic activity and jobs. That's a process that's also worth watching and you can check that out here. As we can see from the list of topic areas below, this exercise will be related to the fundamental science review. As well, we could also see this consultation as the beginning of a comprehensive national digital strategy for the new government. The topic areas have an awful lot of overlap with the Conservative's Digital Canada 150. We shall see.

 

And, finally, information on the various Environmental Assessment Review processes being launched.

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