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President Naylor calls for new fund for research excellence

President David Naylor addresses the Economic Club of Canada

Speaking to decision-makers in the nation’s capital on May 7, David Naylor, president of the University of Toronto, made the case for a new federal fund to support Canadian research excellence.

Professor Naylor’s address to the Economic Club of Canada was his response to a commitment in this year’s federal budget to consultations on reinforcing excellence in post-secondary research. (Read the full text of the address.) That commitment in turn was a response to advocacy efforts by the U15 group of Canadian research universities, spearheaded by Naylor, Professor Heather Munroe-Blum, principal of McGill University, and Professor Stephen Toope, president of the University of British Columbia.

Naylor argued that Canada is losing ground in research excellence, which is widely recognized as essential to a nation’s capacity for innovation and its long-term economic and social prosperity. In support of that concern, he reviewed a number of measures of performance, such as density of top-cited papers and numbers of domestic Nobel prizes. 

“Our peers and competitors are investing selectively in a limited number of universities that can carry the flag in the global arena of advanced research and post-graduate education,” he said. “They are doing it by running open merit-based competitions to spur individuals and teams; by fostering institutional differentiation using a variety of policy instruments; and by avoiding perverse incentives and mission drift across universities and colleges.”

Naylor questioned claims that Canada leads the G7 in spending on higher education research and development, observing that in Canada much more of that spending is subsidized by universities themselves, putting pressure on both operating budgets and tuition fees. He observed that these subsidies arise in part because Canada compares poorly to other countries particularly in federal support for the indirect costs of research – basically, everything researchers need to do their work, apart from direct operating grants for specific projects. 
 
He then sketched a practical proposal to help ensure that Canada’s research-intensive universities can compete and win. Arguing that it is not politically feasible in the short term to reform the funding of indirect research costs, he said, “The right thing to do – which has the great virtue of being both simpler and more inclusive – is to focus immediately and directly on rewarding excellence.”

The proposed fund would be founded on four principles:

  • Measurable excellence. Award funding to institutions on the basis of investigators’ success in the most rigorous open research competitions – competitions adjudicated by peer-review committees at the federal granting councils.
  • Participation based on performance. All institutions would be eligible for support based on performance, albeit with caps to prevent overpayment to institutions already fully reimbursed by the old indirect costs program.  
  • Multi-year phase-in. Start lower but grow the fund over time. The long-term target to make a serious difference should be $300-million to $400-million in base funding.
  • Institution-specific accountability. The funds could flow en bloc, and the Government of Canada would then negotiate an agreement with each institution, setting out key performance indicators.  

“What would this new initiative make possible for Canada?” asked Naylor in conclusion. “It would put more Canadian researchers in the global game with a better chance of winning. And it would allow our strongest research-intensive universities to make their full contribution to the culture of excellence and innovation that we need, if future generations are to prosper in this nation.”

May 22, 2013

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