By Creso Sá

When federal government released the budget earlier this year, it announced a review of “Federal Support for Fundamental Science.” A panel has been assembled to lead consultations through the Fall, and provide recommendations by the end of the year. What will this review encompass? How far is it likely to go?

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 9.21.27 PMFirst, there is a clear change-of-tone message in the review. It follows nearly a decade of a Conservative government whose painstaking efforts to control government researchers’ media engagement and public speaking became known as the muzzling of scientists.  The whole process has been framed as very open to public engagement: anyone can submit input through the review’s website, and the panel was asked to solicit contributions from all relevant stakeholders. Notice also the focus on “Fundamental Science” in the title, which marks a clear departure from the Harper Government’s preference for applied research and commercialization initiatives.

Apart from what the review represents in terms of agenda-setting, the panel’s mandate provides some early cues of likely areas of focus in the months ahead.

One clear target is the federal bureaucracy of research funding. Several questions are raised about the organization of science funding agencies. They range from whether they are “optimally structured and aligned” to meet the needs of the research community, to whether their structures are able to support research involving international collaborations, multidisciplinary teams, and indigenous knowledge. Similar questions are directed at the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) specifically, given its major role in the funding of facilities and equipment.

With all these probes, it would not be surprising to hear calls for a reorganization of federal funding agencies. Indeed, it is conceivable that some overlap exists between, say, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and specialized agencies such as Genome Canada and CFI. Moreover, such proposals are often appealing as they seem to lead to rationalization and efficiency in government.

Forewarning: caution is needed with such proposals. Consolidation may create efficiencies, but may also result in the loss of capacity and expertise to interact with widely disparate research communities, not to speak of budgets. Between conception and implementation lies a huge gap where problems may arise. Take for example the proposal to create UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), bringing together nine distinct councils in the United Kingdom. Put forward in the Nurse Review in late 2015 and now taking shape as a bill, it was first criticized for lacking in detail, and its current form has raised significant concerns among prominent scientists.

The review is also likely to have a major focus on big science. Several questions have been posed to the panel regarding how Canada supports large scale research, including participation in major international collaborations. Related to big science, platform technologies were singled out as a separate theme in the panel’s mandate. There seems to be a predisposition, at least among those writing the mandate, towards a dedicated funding mechanism for such technologies. After asking the panel to consider “what types of criteria and consideration” should inform government’s decision on whether or not to create a separate funding mechanism, the mandate winks at potential candidates: Are there any technologies that would appear to meet such criteria in the immediate term? I don’t expect a shortage of ideas from the research community.

 Finally, tri-council review processes and mechanisms may come under scrutiny. The panel has been asked to consider if review processes in place are “rigorous, fair, and effective” in supporting excellence, riskier research, and novel or multidisciplinary research.

Academic research on the topic suggests that these questions raise foregone conclusions. Churchill’s popular quote on democracy applies well to peer review. While preferable to other forms of funding allocation in science, it often leads to conservatism. Referees usually favor those of their own kin, making adjudication of interdisciplinary or otherwise novel research proposals challenging for funding agencies. In addition, the practices of funding bodies play a role in failing to support risky and novel work: growing requirements that grant proposals specify anticipated outcomes, impacts, and relevance of the proposed research naturally tends to favour work that is more… predictable.

After two decades of incremental tweaks since the resurgence of federal investment in science in the late 1990s, the review opens a window of opportunity to bring about meaningful changes to the research funding system. That the issues discussed above have no simple solutions is a sign that the panel has been handed a meaningful mandate. Hopefully the panel’s consultations and analyses will move us closer to addressing at least some of them in a satisfactory manner.

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