Bolstering Canadian research: U of T welcomes federal science review

Barbara Sherwood Lollar, a professor of earth sciences, won the prestigious NSERC award in 2016 for research into billion-year-old water. NSERC is one of the federal research agencies discussed in the Fundamental Science Review (photo courtesy of NSERC)

The University of Toronto welcomed the release on April 10 of the long-anticipated review of the federal government’s support for fundamental science.

Chaired by U of T President Emeritus Dr. David Naylor, the Fundamental Science Review panel, which also included former U of T president Robert Birgeneau, was asked last year to look for overall program gaps in Canada’s research funding ecosystem. The panel explored a breadth of disciplines including the social sciences and humanities. 

The panel’s report offered 35 recommendations on issues of governance and enhanced support for early-career researchers, as well as calling for a boost of $1.3 billion in federal funding. It’s been four decades since a comprehensive review of this scale has occurred at the federal level.

“We welcome the dedicated work of the panel,” said Vivek Goel, U of T’s vice-president of research and innovation. “The panel identified the significance of the full range of scholarship – a broad definition of research beyond just fundamental science – and they’ve proposed a way of better coordinating the funding ecosystem.”

The panel’s key recommendations include:

  • The formation of a formal coordinating board for the four federal research agencies − Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) − chaired by the Chief Science Advisor.
  • The creation of a new National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation (NACRI) to provide broad oversight of the federal research and innovation ecosystems. 
  • The government of Canada should provide CFI with a stable annual budget.
  • The government of Canada should mandate and fund CFI to increase its share of the matching ratio for national-scale major research facilities from 40 to 60 per cent.
  • The government should renew the Canada Research Chairs program, including restoring funding to 2012 levels and adjusting it to account for inflation since 2000.
  • The government should gradually increase funding to the Research Support Fund until the reimbursement rate is 40 per cent for all institutions.

Andrew Thomson, chief of government relations at U of T, said the review was timely. 

“We believe it will provide a basis for improved coordination across the granting councils for all research endeavours,” Thomson said. “This is about strengthening the Canadian research ecosystem, which drives the economic, social and cultural growth of the country.”

Read the Globe and Mail story

The review was done by a panel of experts chaired by Dr. Naylor. It warned that years of dwindling research- and development- investment in Canada have left the country’s federal research ecosystem “weakly coordinated and inconsistently evaluated” and lacking “consistent oversight.” 

Read the Maclean's story

U of T’s submission to the panel was one of 1,275 written submissions the panel reviewed from associations, organizations and individuals. The review also convened roundtables in five Canadian cities, talking to 230 researchers.

Read the CBC story

Goel said U of T was pleased to see the call for a public conversation about the value of investments in discovery-based research, as well as recommendations on improving communication and coordination among all of the major funding bodies.

“The panel has chosen an approach of creating a coordinating body and oversight group, this National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation (NACRI), that’s a very efficient way of dealing with this very complex issue,” he said. 

Read the Toronto Star story

The university hopes to take a closer look at the implications of the recommendations, including calls for increased investment in the direct costs for research and the indirect costs, which are covered by the Research Support Fund. 

“We are particularly pleased that the report also recommends greater investment in the Research Support Fund to better align the level of funding with the full costs of research borne by the university,” Thomson said. “This multi-year roadmap helps support top talent at U of T and our next generation of researchers.” 

Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan launched the panel in June 2016. In a statement, Duncan said the government will be taking a close look at the panel’s recommendations.

“I look forward to reviewing the panel's recommendations and will continue listening to and engaging in an open and thoughtful way with Canada's research community as we collectively work toward the goal of ensuring that federal support for fundamental research is strategic and effective, and meets the needs of all Canadians,” she said.

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