By Emina Veletanlic

The Naylor report received its first collective appraisal from the scientific community this week. About 200 scientists, higher education administrators, and media gathered in Toronto on May 31st to articulate their shared response to the first review in four decades of Canada’s fundamental science apparatus.

Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 9.52.30 PMReleased in April, the Naylor report purports to answer key questions about the state of Canadian science. Its 280 pages are no doubt substantive and instructive: the report sets a strategy for a comprehensive overhaul of the federally supported research enterprise. It also lays out the case for a hefty $1.3 billion increase in funding over four years.

With those needs articulated, one must ask: Does the scientific community have a clear vision or end game in mind?

The answer is likely no.

An apparent consensus

Certainly, scientists in the room felt that the report’s 35 recommendations would steer us in the right direction. A show of hands during the event suggested overwhelming support for those measures.

Rightfully so. It’s hard to argue against more diversity and equity, more money, more support for early-career researchers, and fewer “disconnected entities arising from opportunistic decisions”.

But the discussions this week also made it abundantly clear the path forward is fraught with challenges. Chief among the issues raised were a shortage of diversity, ineffective messaging, and politics.

Let’s look at these more closely.

1. Change starts from within.

The scientific community itself has to address a number of diversity and equity issues.

The Naylor report points to devastating bias in peer reviews and areas where underrepresented groups are particularly vulnerable.

McMaster University’s Dawn Martin-Hill spoke passionately about the value of Indigenous research and the tragic “interruption of knowledge and oral traditions” brought about by residential schools and other systemic failures.

Certainly, these are endemic issues that won’t be addressed by money alone.

2. Science needs a more compelling value proposition.

To scientists, the value of discovery is self-evident. But making a case for funding amidst other competing claims on public funds means we must build a solid value proposition for research.

“Value” goes beyond money and savings and can involve emotional and social impact. A holistic policy intervention helping newcomers access higher education, or a medical drug that extends someone’s life by a year certainly has value.

The trouble with research is that the timing and degree of its value are difficult to predict. Often, research requires long time horizons which extend beyond the tenure of any political party.

In this case, mastering the art of story telling can promote continued support for a value proposition.  As David Naylor himself suggests: personalize, tell positive stories, and highlight the short- and long-term potential.

3. Science must find a fit with politics.

Advocacy efforts need to deal with the complexities of political decision-making. This includes navigating Canada’s system of ministries and departments with different degrees of influence on the research portfolio. It also involves vying for attention in a highly charged geopolitical environment. We are arguing for science funding while NAFTA faces potential renegotiation and the US appears to be abandoning the Paris Accord.

Thus, speakers advocated for “unity over cacophony” in the political realm. Researchers should ask for broad sectoral support rather than for “one-offs” that result in “boutique entities” with divergent mandates. Scientists need long-term goals that can survive the ebbs and flows of electoral cycles.

Given these realities, we should approach the Naylor panel recommendations with cautious optimism.

A large-scale retrofit of a system that has accumulated so many structural quirks over many decades will need much patience and strong champions. In short, execution is key. And as some participants point out, it’s still not clear who can or should speak on behalf of science.

What lies ahead?

The mark of a good strategy is knowing where you want to go. If at the heart of the matter is our decline in global research competitiveness, then perhaps getting Canadian science back up in the rankings is the ultimate goal.

On the other hand, if harmonization and coordination are key, then consensus on what metrics define an optimal level of cohesion is needed. How will we know that we reached it?

Setting down clear measures for success for a multi-billion-dollar research sector is hard, potentially divisive and even controversial. However, if we think of this overhaul and investment as a national experiment or intervention, we must define a theory of change with clear criteria for success and we must be prepared to measure progress along the way. Only then will we know whether or not our approach to renewing Canada’s research enterprise is working.

The Naylor report recommendations are expected to lead to a system that performs exceptionally on ten dimensions: “world-leading and globally-collaborative, meritocratic, independent yet accountable, coordinated, balanced, responsive, talent-focused, diverse and equitable, efficient, and outward-facing”.

These are lofty goals but very hard to measure, both individually and in relation to one another. Nonetheless, if we set goals, we need ways to quantify them.

Without laying out a stepwise process or causal chain that tells us exactly how the recommended investments and changes will achieve and measure these dimensions, all we have are fuzzy and idealistic “guiding principles”.

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