David Naylor is right. Scientists need to speak with a unified voice

04/21/2017
By Steve Higham

Last week, Dr. David Naylor and a panel of experts released their report on Canada’s Fundamental Science Review. The report, which was commissioned by Minister Duncan last year, recognized that federal support for basic research has flat-lined in recent years, with a corresponding decline in Canada’s overall research competitiveness. 

Among the recommendations were calls to increase funding to the federal granting councils and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation; improve the coordination of federally funded research agencies and programs while ensuring robust evaluation methods; and better support early-career researchers. In addition, the report recommends a review of how funds are allocated across the granting councils, and calls for greater collaboration in providing long-term support for Indigenous researchers.

Overwhelmingly, the response of the research community has been positive. The report largely reflects the concerns and demands that scientists have been voicing for a number of years, and it will likely serve as the benchmark against which federal policy decisions affecting research will be measured in the years ahead.

But therein lies the uncertainty. The recommendations have been made, but not yet implemented. There are always political and financial considerations that can serve to limit the ability or willingness of a government to implement recommendations. There is also a tendency of those of us engaged in policy work to joyfully scrutinize and debate the finer points of such reports, and offer our opinions to anyone who cares on why specific recommendations are or are not likely to succeed. And while skepticism isn’t a bad thing, it can undermine valid ideas if it doesn’t bringing value to the conversation.

Right now, there seems to be momentum for research in Canada and a seemingly receptive government. Canada already has a respected post-secondary system and an international reputation for openness and diversity. Building on these, the government has in recent months announced the office of a Chief Science Advisor, a Global Skills Strategy, an Investment Hub, the establishment of superclusters, and significant support for AI research and development. These are all positive signs that the government is serious about positioning Canada to lead in a competitive knowledge economy.

If scientists (and policy-wonks) want fundamental, investigator-led research be a significant factor in the Government of Canada’s strategy to strengthen overall research competitiveness, they will need to speak with a unified voice in encouraging the implementation of the Naylor Report’s recommendations. This was expressed emphatically by Dr. Naylor: “The first thing I’m going to suggest tentatively is that we try to avoid engaging in an endless dissection of the report. I would urge some understanding that by supporting these recommendations as a broad package, without too much quibbling about the details, we are much more likely to see this report taken on.”

The status-quo isn’t bad. We publish lots of papers, produce high-quality researchers, and our scientists routinely contribute to major international projects. But there’s a paragraph (p. 13) in the Naylor Report that describes the status quo quite eloquently:

When billions live in circumstances vastly less favourable than ours, Canada cannot excuse middling contributions with self-congratulatory memes that we punch above our weight on a population-adjusted basis. For that matter, many less wealthy nations are now rapidly expanding their research capacity, while many of our OECD peers are investing heavily in both research and innovation. In this context of accelerating change and intensifying competition, the Panel believes that a world leading extramural research enterprise is essential to the maintenance of Canada as a successful society and a prosperous sovereign nation.

The Naylor Report provides us with a path towards ensuring that fundamental research is recognized as an essential component in Canadian research competitiveness. With cohesive support from the research community, the prospects for implementation are good. 

 

 

 

 


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