Science research in Canada
While at a conference on graph searching in Crete this last week, I met Greek mathematicians and computer scientists who now live and work in places abroad. Their departure was owing in part to the economic crisis in 2010 in their home country.
Compared to Greece, Canada is in a better place economically, although we don’t have the lovely ancient monuments and warm weather. We have a solid GDP of 1.6 trillion dollars that ranks us 10th in the world and low unemployment at 6.8%. Our 34 million citizens have free access to public education (up to and including secondary education) and free public health care. We have 98 universities that are almost all publicly funded, and we have four federal research granting agencies: NSERC, SSHRC, CIHR, and CFI.
Within this climate of relative national prosperity, the federal government set out to examine the state of Canadian science research. The Naylor Report is the result of that soul-searching and was released on April 10, 2017. The Advisory panel for the report (head by ex-University of Toronto President David Naylor) was launched in June 2016 by the federal Minister of Science, Dr. Kirsty Duncan.
Coming in at 280 pages, the report contains a multitude of stats making its case. Among these are the number of scientific publications produced by Canada vs other countries, doctoral degrees conferred, international awards, and the raw numbers of science funding expenditures from federal government vs other sources (GERD vs BERD vs HERD, and so on).
The Panel’s call for submissions to their targeted questions yielded 1,275 written responses from individuals, universities, and organizations. They also convened roundtables in five Canadian cities, engaging some 230 researchers at different career stages in conversations on diverse topics.
While the report has many recommendations. The main one is for an annual increase of 1.3 billion dollars phased-in over four years, focusing on independently driven science rather than targeted project-based research. These additional funds would amount to about 0.4% of the 317-billion-dollar Canadian federal annual budget.
Why increase science funding? Because our federal funding of research has flatlined, and we are less competitive on a world stage, even when compared to smaller or less developed nations. By many measures, Canada ranks lower in scientific intensity compared not only to G7 countries but to smaller nations such as Belgium, Sweden, or The Netherlands. As the report says in a section called Seizing the Leadership Moment:
“When billions live in circumstances vastly less favourable than ours, Canada cannot excuse middling contributions with self-congratulatory memes that we punch above our weight on a population-adjusted basis. For that matter, many less wealthy nations are now rapidly expanding their research capacity, while many of our OECD peers are investing heavily in both research and innovation.”
There are also calls for restructuring of various government committees, calls for better cooperation and governance of granting agencies, broadening equity and diversity in science, supporting early career researchers, and heightening indigenous participation in science. Even the much-maligned Canadian Common CV gets airtime.
Einstein and Coca Cola
One of the things I hear from non-mathematicians is about the utility of independent science and mathematics. What is it good for if it is not used for immediate profit?
A fun analogy comes from thinking about Albert Einstein’s research in theoretical physics. His work on relativity ushered in a new age of understanding about the universe, specifically about nuclear physics, gravity and the large-scale structure of space-time. Imagine if Einstein’s work was funded by Coca Cola. If Coke didn’t like his work, then they would stop the funding. When he discovered an important result like E = mc2, they could claim ownership of the equation and prevent him from publishing it.
While this is a fictitious example, it underscores an important point: fundamental research done at universities is different from science done for corporate gain. If science were fully corporatized, then the work of future Einsteins may become the intellectual property of a for-profit company. I don’t want a cure for cancer patented by Pfizer, or a cold fusion reactor copyrighted by Tesla, or the proof of the Riemann Hypothesis kept secret by Microsoft. Scientists need the freedom to question, probe, and rebel against the status-quo. That’s harder to do in an environment of quarterly profit and loss.
I think the Naylor Report is great. I like the idea of enhancing our research grants. I think the report is a long overdue snapshot of where we are and a map of where we need to go.
Ultimately, it is a report with recommendations only, and so should be discussed and debated. Canada’s federal government has many other priorities for spending, the least of which is our growing national debt. Should science funding take precedent over the building of roads and bridges? Over funding social security for the elderly? Over addressing indigenous issues, or the creation of a national drug plan? Most people would say no.
Whether you agree with the report’s findings or not, or think it is asking for too little or too much, I propose that the Naylor report is an important document that is timely for the Canadian scientific community. Given the lean last fifteen years for science funding, an addition of funds we would be very welcome. We’ve fallen behind in research funding, even relative to nations with smaller populations. As the report says in its Executive Summary:
“The Panel’s overall conclusion is that independent science and scholarly inquiry have been underfunded for much of the last decade, as the federal government has concentrated resources on innovation-facing and priority-driven programs…. We have no doubt that a major boost to funding for the ecosystem is urgently needed.”
Canada has the people. We have the universities. We have the talent. Now we need leadership and a plan going forward to push scientific research to the next level.