April 13, 2017

Analysis: Fundamental Science Review

The Advisory Panel on Federal Support for Fundamental Science was struck in June 2016 to review existing federal supports for peer-reviewed science and inquiry occurring outside of government departments and agencies. Over the past year, the Panel conducted the most extensive review of fundamental science to happen in over four decades, receiving 1,275 written submissions and conducting five roundtables with over 230 researchers.

Based on these consultations, as well as its own research, the Panel released a report on April 10 that contains 35 recommendations for the federal government to strengthen the foundations of Canadian research.

The Canadian Federation of Students welcomes these recommendations, many of which reinforce what graduate students have been calling for through the National Graduate Caucus for years, particularly around increased funding for basic, curiosity-driven research, greater support for graduate students and improved adjudication processes to support researchers from marginalized communities.

Funding

Between 2006 and 2014, funding declined by nearly 35 percent for researchers hoping to pursue independent, investigator-led research projects. In particular, though representing the largest community of scholars, SSHRC receives approximately 15 percent of funding allocated to the tri-council agencies. This drastic decrease in funding, and the even further underfunding of SSHRC researchers, is the direct result of the federal government favouring priority-driven, targeted research that meets the short-term priorities of the private sector and a narrowly defined “innovation agenda.”

The Panel argues that the federal government must recognize that “[the] fruits of innovation do not materialize out of thin air…they grow out of the wellspring of knowledge, ideas, and insights that originate largely, albeit not exclusively, from basic research.” The Panel goes further to warn against attempts to link investments in research to specific improvements on a specific timeline, as this does not allow for the “non-linear, often indirect and unpredictable impacts of most forms of research.”

The Federation is excited to see a call for a funding increase of $1.3 billion by 2022 to support basic, investigator-led research, as well as a review of the current allocation of funding across the tri-council agencies to ensure that researchers across all disciplines are being supported and able to carry out their research.

Early Career Researchers

Existing research funding is concentrated in more established researchers, as seen in Budget 2017, which offered no new funding to tri-council operating budgets while committing $117.6 million over 8 years to fund 25 new Canada 150 Research Chairs. As a result, “‘a valley of death’ [has] open[ed] up between early career and established researchers.” Throughout the report, the Panel emphasizes the importance of taking a lifecycle approach to research funding, ensuring that researchers at different stages of their careers are able to access funding. The Panel pays particular attention to the need to better support early career researchers, including graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. While enrolment in graduate programs has continued to steadily increase, the number of Canada Graduate Scholarships has not changed since 2007. In addition, the value of these awards has not changed since their establishment in 2003, resulting in a 25 percent decline in value due to inflation.

To better support early career researchers, the Panel recommends:

  • More direct and indirect funding, including scholarships, fellowships and research positions for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows;
  • More harmonized levels of support (in both value and duration) for doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows;
  • The elimination of restrictions on international portability of awards; and
  • Better support for international students’ research through the Vanier and Banting programs.

Equity

Low research funding success rates disproportionately affect researchers from underrepresented groups, including women, Indigenous researchers, racialized groups and people with disabilities. The Panel recommends the development of consistent and coordinated policies to achieve better equity and diversity outcomes in the allocation of research funding. To fulfill this, the Panel recommends greater diversity on peer review panels, training on bias for peer reviewers and making tailored peer review mechanisms for specific research groups.

In a research environment where Indigenous ways of knowing are often dismissed or undervalued, the Panel emphasizes the need to build and support Indigenous research capacity. In particular, the Panel recommends that the tri-council agencies develop a plan to promote and support Indigenous research, guided by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations on research. As called for by the National Graduate Caucus, this recommendation includes the need for improved recognition of community-based research and Indigenous knowledge in the adjudication of applications for research funding.

The Panel notes that an absence of data makes it difficult to gain a full and accurate picture of diversity within Canada’s research community. Though not sufficient on its own, the Panel recommends that better data collection practices be established to help inform the development and implementation of these policies.

Additional Recommendations

The Panel offers several other recommendations, including:

  • The creation of a National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation (NACRIS), comprised of scientists and scholars from a range of disciplines, to provide oversight of the federal research bodies;
  • The establishment of a Four Agency Coordinating Board to harmonize funding strategies across the tri-council agencies and the Canada Foundation for Innovation;
  • Increased funding for research infrastructure and to cover the indirect costs of research; and
  • A First Ministers’ Conference on Research Excellence to celebrate and cement a commitment to global leadership and scholarly inquiry.

The complete report can be found here.

The Canadian Federation of Students and National Graduate Caucus will work alongside coalition partners to lobby the federal government to implement the Panel’s recommendations and effectively support, grow and diversify Canada’s research community, including the increasing number of students pursuing graduate studies.