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Interview / David Naylor

Interview / David Naylor

In April 2017, the final report of the Advisory Panel for the Review of Federal Support for Fundamental Science was made public. A few weeks later, the panel’s chair, David Naylor, past dean of medicine and president emeritus at the University of Toronto, spoke to delegates at CAUT’s 82nd Council meeting and fielded questions about the review and the report’s recommendations.

“CAUT’s engagement, and, more specifically, engagement and advocacy by frontline faculty colleagues across this country will be absolutely essential if the recommendations in this report are to have any traction with the federal government,” Naylor said in his opening remarks.

Those recommendations are many — ranging from a federal funding increase of $1.3 billion for basic, non-targeted research with better balanced allocation across the three research granting agencies; to creation of a new National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation providing broad oversight of federal research programs, and development and harmonization of funding strategies across the agencies; to better supporting Indigenous researchers and improving equity and diversity in federal research programs, including setting “hard equity targets and quotas where persistent and unacceptable disparities exist.”

The report’s strident call for invigorated funding, if acted upon, will ensure adequate funding levels and help repair the imbalance that emerged in recent years between investigator-led and priority-driven research and between disciplines.

“We repeatedly emphasized that government can’t shortchange basic and independent research and expect innovation to flourish, and nor can they short-circuit connections between research and innovation. Both of those mindsets have been evident in recent years in this country … and they are both profoundly misguided,” Naylor noted.

The panel, appointed in June 2016, enjoyed a wide mandate to review the federal system of support for research conducted by scientists and scholars employed outside of government departments and agencies and covered the full range of disciplines involving peer-reviewed science or inquiry, with either a basic or applied orientation. The panel also looked into programs supporting knowledge generation, as contrasted with programs oriented primarily to fostering partnerships with industry or civil society, or promoting knowledge translation, innovation and commercialization.

The panel’s work focused primarily on the four pillar agencies that support the Canadian extramural research ecosystem: the three granting councils — the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council — as well as the federal infrastructure agency, the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

Naylor said as panel members reviewed 1,275 written submissions, and met with more than 200 researchers from across the country, a number of common themes emerged: calls for enhanced support for early-career researchers; more effective measures to promote equity and diversity; and strategic support for Indigenous scholars and research. “I don’t know how we can have an ecosystem that’s successful if we leave one million Canadians behind,” Naylor noted.

He also commended Science Minister Kirsty Duncan, to whose specific questions the panel responded in its report, and noted the challenge politically. “In most instances, governments investing in independent research don’t get immediate sunshine. The electoral cycle is brutally short, social media is acerbic; it’s a tough time to be in the political game,” he said.

Nonetheless, “Canada can’t thrive in the current global context without long term investment in research that has long term objectives,” according to Naylor. “Quite simply, nothing is more important than rigorous research that has the potential to improve our understanding of the natural and social world in which we live, and in many cases social or economic or commercial impacts are impossible to predict. Research funding cannot be made contingent on these factors. That was our main message.”

Naylor emphasized the panel’s recommendation that while “the imminent appointment of a new Chief Science Advisor for Canada is a major step forward, more needs to be done: “The Government of Canada, by an Act of Parliament, should create an independent National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation to provide broad oversight of the federal research and innovation ecosystems.”

While expressing doubt that “we’ll get a Trump,” Naylor said “that doesn’t mean we won’t get another government with a different view. And that’s why we recommend a legislated mechanism be there to make it harder to change.”

Despite the panel’s clear call for stability and institutional independence, Naylor reiterated the need for continued advocacy in order to ensure the report’s recommendations see the light of day.

“It cannot be just the voice of CAUT, but must be individual institutions all speaking severally. There has to be a writing campaign, an effort to get in front of local MPs with your colleagues, join forces with graduate students and postdoctoral scholars and administrations, and make this a multi-stakeholder effort where you can. What is critical is that there be a broad sense that there is grass-roots activism,” he concluded.

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