Federal Review of Canadian Fundamental Science

Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science in Canada (yes we have a Minister of Science! Winning!) was tasked to establish a federal review of fundamental science and established a panel chaired by Dr. David Naylor, which is due to report by year end. This panel solicited input from a variety of sources including the public, researchers, trainees, administrators and others and received over 1600 submissions (be careful what you ask for). For the record, here’s what I submitted:

Dear Federal Fundamental Science Review Panel members,

First, let me say how delighted I am that this panel has been convened. Thank you for your service! Science has always been at the pedestal of civilized societies and is a delicate and often misunderstood human activity. My input to the panel derives from my experience with different scientific environments in Canada, the USA and UK. As Research Director of the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Sinai Health System, which is affiliated with the University of Toronto, my personal opinions also touch upon the critical and highly successful role of research hospitals in Canadian science, which is too often overlooked. I have grouped my input into 6 areas:

1. Consolidation

It is understandable that governments like to create new entities to deliver specific functions but over the past 15–17 years Canada’s Federal scientific support system has evolved into an array of poorly coordinated, often cross-competing and, in some cases, poorly performing bespoke streams of funding. Comparison with peer countries reveals we have far too many programs for our relative size and that the administrative oversight of each system adds bureaucracy and reduces effectiveness of a comprehensive science program. Moreover, it is only natural that each of these programs must lobby for its own existence and make their case for funding every year or so. While the Chretien government in the late 1990’s created several of these programs and these were added to by the Harper government, they need refreshing and re-evaluating with respect to their relevance to the evolution of science today with respect to how they deliver their mission. Some could readily be assimilated into the tricouncils, others should probably sunset and others need strategic re-investment.

For example, the Canada Research Chairs program is a well-respected (and copied) means to support superb researchers at different career stages. As a consequence of creation of the CRCs, other agencies closed down salary support programs (e.g. investigator awards). However, the value of a CRC has not changed since their creation and they are worth less than 60% of their initial value. If left to wither, they will lose their prestige and respect. Bringing them back to their initial relative value would also assist in the indirect cost gap that exists and starves the most productive researcher environments.

In my view, the Canada Foundation for Innovation is an exemplar of what federal support can efficiently achieve. Of particular note, under the commendable leadership of Giles Patry, it has moved to fund both new equipment and to sustain support of existing infrastructure. This is a critical step that increases the ROI of facilities and avoids funding applications for non-scientific reasons, such as inability to support maintenance contracts on otherwise perfectly useful devices and facilities. This is a far-sighted evolution and an excellent model for other Federal agencies. Too often, we think in 3–5 year chunks when the most effective science acts with a much longer time-frame.

Genome Canada was created at a time when genomics required large-scale, dedicated laboratories. It was very successful in supporting Canadian efforts in genomics and proteomics. So successful, in fact, that this type of research approach is now mainstream. Our relatively small research institute has 1000X the DNA sequencing capacity of a dedicated genomics lab of 10 years ago and we are by no means unique. However, the tri-councils struggle to fund larger scale programs. There could be a new role for Genome Canada if morphed into the tricouncils to specifically support large, expensive research programs. This would not be restricted to genomics but would make use of the quality adjudication and accountability structures devised by Genome Canada over the years (though these could be simplified and made less onerous).

In terms of funding of science, different fields obviously have very different needs but the basic unit that supports the majority of Canada’s scientists is the operating grant. There has been a trend towards larger scale programs and projects (e.g. BRAIN Initiative, Precision Medicine Initiative and Cancer Moonshot — in the US alone). We must be careful NOT to be tempted to mimic such efforts simply because others are doing it, but, if appropriate, complement and/or extend them. Ditto, there is an argument that, for a small country, we should focus on our strengths (examples might be stem cells or forestry). Ironically, we are also too small to do this as science moves quickly and any advantages are usually fleeting. Instead, we need to be as nimble as possible in supporting a wide and diverse array of young scientists. This will be far more productive, be less likely to miss important areas and gets government and its agencies away from the poor performance associated with flawed attempts to pick winners. In other words, first ensure we are generating and supporting a bevvy of scientists and their ideas. From this will spring plenty of new innovations.

2. Role of Canadian science in the world

Science has always been highly collaborative and researchers interact within a scalable local/national/global network. Some encouragement for this is probably a good investment but the most productive interactions are bottom up, driven by the scientists themselves. What does help and enable them are world-class facilities and infrastructure. We should also encourage our young researchers to train in other countries and to perhaps limit fellowship programs to those who will spend several years working outside Canada. What brings them back is a vibrant research ecosystem. Domestic fellowships might be better rolled into grant programs as this would help coordinate operating and support dollars. Personally, I’m not a fan of two tiered studentships and fellowships (e.g. Vanier and Banting). These act as positive reinforcements but create tensions between trainees and their success rates are so low that it is unlikely that those with the highest potential are selected (indeed, these awards tend to go to those who “tick all the boxes” and are already advantaged). What is far more important to our trainees is building a sustainable career structure. Clearly, this doesn’t mean a job guarantee, rather a more predictable structure where they can assess their roles and see that there is a reasonable future in science. For example, we should ensure success rates in grant applications are representative of the career stage demographics of the applications. NIH achieves this and so should we. Currently, we are seeing some of our brightest young minds turn to other professions. We must do better in making science appealing for students — starting well before high school.

3. Science governance

The government is looking into various models of science administration including creation of the role of Chief Science Advisor/Officer. This is a good move although the role needs to evolve over time. If government truly wishes to gather and use evidence as a base for policies and decisions, this role should pervade the various ministries, cabinet and the PMO. I would hope the selected person has a science background, is respected and is not too long in the tooth (many scientists lose track of progress over time and administrators are probably the least aware of the latest developments). Indeed, communication skills are likely as important as understanding of the scientific process. Creation of a Canadian Science Advisory Board might be worthy in order to ensure federal government decisions can be referred for input from an arms length scientific think-tank. This Board could be tasked with ensuring that agencies play well together and new strategic directions are identified before they’ve been developed by other jurisdictions (see also CIHR, below).

4. Gender and career stage parity

The Canada Excellence Research Chair program may have had worthy intentions when created but its design is clearly flawed as the selection process essentially eliminates women from contention for a variety of complex reasons. That there are 25 male CERCs and only one women is embarrassing and sends a terrible message (correct at time of writing, now there are 26 male CERCs). In addition, there was little apparent thought given to receptors for the CERCs once their 7 year term had finished. For those in the life sciences, there is at least hope of attracting similar levels of funding from CIHR but for those in the natural and social sciences this is a pipe dream. As a result, it is highly likely many of these people will leave Canada at the end of their terms. This is a waste of resource and disruptive to everyone associated with them. This is also true of the imbalance in scientific demographics. As mentioned above, we must smoothen out the bulges and adjust, if necessary, success rates to relate to application fractions. Likewise, there should be gender-neutral policies for adjudication and mechanisms to adjust for conscious/unconscious bias.

5. The neglected role of research hospitals

For historical reasons, scientific research in hospitals emerged out of haphazard circumstances, typically rooted in philanthropy and the will of individuals. These activities have grown and thrived and now represent many of the most prestigious and internationally recognized research centres in Canada. Many are larger, in terms of their annual research budget than a number of research-intensive universities. Some are, in essence, a part of the university with salaries being paid through the academic institution. Others are sovereign entities. In Toronto we have a vibrant system of world-class research hospitals that are affiliated with the University of Toronto and work well with the university. The 80% of health research performed in this city under their direct administration, with salaries and facilities entirely paid for by the hospitals, are, nonetheless grouped as part of the University of Toronto’s overall activity. There is nothing wrong with this as long as the independence, autonomy and responsibility of these research institutes are recognized. These hospitals each have the right to apply for and administer CIHR, Genome Canada and CFI funds. CRCs are centrally administered but distributed via a formula calculated from the tricouncil fractions being housed under the auspices of each. Hospitals cannot directly apply for NSERC $. They are also not eligible to independently apply for CF-REF funding (although some universities may incorporate some elements of the research programs and scientists into proposals).

It is time to make any autonomous hospital-based research institute eligible to directly apply for and manage any federal research and infrastructure funding to which universities are also eligible to apply. This will strengthen these institutions, increase their competitiveness and remove an important inequity. As a potent example, recently, the $2 billion Scientific Infrastructure Fund (SIF) was a superb opportunity for such hospital-affiliated institutions to apply for funding for renovations and new building. They were deemed eligible (unlike the previous competition held in 2010), a significant step forward. Unfortunately, applications still had to be made through the appropriate affiliated University, creating conflicts of interest in priorities. In several Provinces including Ontario, applications from hospitals were specifically deprecated in priority by the Universities or were simply not allowed to apply. This was unfortunate and likely against the intent of the federal government. Such loop-holes need closing. Should there by a second round of SIF, applications should not be required to be submitted via the affiliated University.

6. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research

As Minister Philpott is well aware, the past few years in the health research field have been tumultuous and recently culminated in a rare intervention by her office to attempt to mitigate the outcomes of a poorly construed series of reforms. We can only assume that CIHR had the best intent in introducing such radical changes and it was done, in part, in response to a prolonged stagnation in government funding. Indeed, if ear-marked dollars for specific initiatives such as SPOR are removed, the effective spending power of the agency for investigator-initiated science has decreased by over 25% since 2008/9. The extra $30 million allocated to CIHR in the February budget was a very welcome start but, as we’ve just seen with the results of this years primary open funding competitions (Project and Foundation), the success rate was still a historic low of 13% (even after 23% cuts to budgets of all Projects). Thanks in large part to the Minister’s intervention, there are significant changes coming to improve the problems with peer review introduced by the reforms — these are critical to restore confidence of the health research community. But there remains a much bigger problem. The current fiscal year (FY2016) has funded 2 CIHR open competitions, but FY2017 must fund 3 as there will be 2 Project competitions a year, going forward. I have recently modeled the possible scenarios for the next CIHR competitions — they are not pretty without substantial additional investment:


The problem is that as success rates dropped, application pressures spiraled up. This was exacerbated by cancellation of two open competitions during the transition to the new programs and it will take some time for this pent-up pressure to dissipate. While the dismal outlook will no doubt negatively impact recruitment and retention of many excellent scientists, immediate consequences are being felt through the letting go of skilled technicians and diversion of STEM graduates into different careers. I believe it essential to invest an additional minimum of $150 million into the annual base budget to support the open programs at CIHR, as soon as possible, to stabilize a highly volatile situation. Normally, there is a 2:2:1 allocation of new base funding to the tricouncils, but if commensurate investments cannot be afforded to SSHRC and NSERC, there is a strong case for exceptional funding of CIHR.

Secondly, the situation we are currently in is a result of a clear failure of CIHR leadership and governance. This is far too involved for your panel to delve into but CIHR needs a governance structure that provides for independent oversight that is not under the influence of its President. An arms-length Board that has the ability to test the assumptions and projections of the agency would have been able to detect and correct the problems that have been encountered (reported by governmental audits after the fact).

Thirdly, and this pertains directly to the all of the work being done by your panel, we need far better understanding of what Canada requires from its scientists. As the recent perturbations at CIHR have reminded us, there is a delicate relationship between the population of researchers in a particular scientific area and the nations capacity to support them. If funds become tighter, application pressures increase and can overwhelm the system of adjudication (as just experienced). Yet if the success rates are too high, too many people will attracted into the system. What is the happy medium where we attain a steady state of competitive researchers that we can afford to support effectively? How does that number relate to training and intake of new minds into fields? The average training period is now well over a decade for health scientists — thus matching of future needs is almost impossible without stability. Our scientific capacity is market-driven, like most professions, but the lag time is so long that we must be very careful not to trigger unintended consequences.

This last point is not easily answered except that simply asking these questions should increase awareness and transparency. We can compare our performance with other countries. And we can engage in policy discussions and experiment with new approaches. But we need to figure out how science can best serve Canada and that requires open-minded thinking and a better understanding of our options. I think such knowledge could free up significant existing resources and allow more efficient processes to achieve our ends.

In closing, may I take the liberty to remind you of the eternal challenge of scientific research. It is inherently unpredictable, expensive and wasteful if looked upon in the same light as most other governmental expenditures. As a result, most jurisdictions, including our own, have built complex accountability and oversight systems for research. We have tried to mechanize or automate science (part of the flawed attraction of too much “big science”) and prematurely accelerate application. The simple fact is that scientific research depends on our ingenuity, our willingness to question established understanding and to do things that, at the time, often appear weird or irrational. While we cannot give free reign to expenditures of tax payer dollars, we, equally, are wasting that money if we try to overly control science. The structures we assemble to support our research need to be flexible and enabling of great thinking. Much of the rest, including attraction of new industry, jobs, and wealth creation will flow from gentle fostering of our brightest minds to their full potential.

Sincerely yours,

James R Woodgett, Ph.D.

Director of Research

Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute