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Sensing a moment, Canadian scientists swing for the fences

From left, Minister of Finance Bill Morneau, Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan and McGill University’s Martha Crago attend a prebudget discussion with scientists and researchers at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto on Dec. 15, 2017.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Scientists are making a historic pitch to revitalize basic research in Canada and the federal government is listening.

After a lukewarm response earlier this year to a report that calls for a 37-per-cent increase in annual funding for university-based research, Ottawa is showing signs that it is coming around to the idea that Canadian science needs a significant boost.

"I think the tone has changed this fall," said David Naylor, the former University of Toronto president who led the panel behind the report. "That in turn tells me that folks in finance and the Prime Minister's Office have got the message."

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Research advocates say a growing economy at home and political turmoil elsewhere has handed Canada a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get back on par with other developed countries in its science investments. They warn that a failure to seize that opportunity will cost the Trudeau government its credibility with scientists after a federal election in which the Liberals touted their support for research and evidence-based decision-making.

In recent weeks, a vigorous grassroots campaign by academic researchers across the country has attempted to persuade the government to adopt the report's 35 recommendations, many of them related to the structure and operation of the research-funding system, as well as its call for more resources. Scientists have leveraged social media, created videos describing their work and launched postcard-writing marathons aimed at federal politicians. Canadian universities have also hosted at least 45 visits by MPs to show off what their researchers are doing.

"It's been decades since we've seen this kind of all-in effort," said Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada, which advocates for academic institutions.

Conversations are also under way behind the scenes. To date, Universities Canada has been involved in more than 120 meetings with officials about the Naylor report, Mr. Davidson said, far more interaction than would have occurred during a typical budget cycle.

On Friday, signs of receptivity to the funding question could be seen during a closed-door roundtable session held in Toronto between Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Science Minister Kirsty Duncan and more than a dozen research leaders.

In a conference room at the Royal Ontario Museum, with a large display case depicting global biodiversity as a backdrop, the discussion ranged widely across many issues affecting the research ecosystem. Above all, participants said, Canada's scientific enterprise needs a long-term infusion of stable funding to keep younger researchers in the profession and set the stage for the kinds of major breakthroughs that are decades in the making.

When asked what it would take to convince him and advisers who are working on the next federal budget, Mr. Morneau later replied: "We are convinced. What we have to do is think about how we can have the biggest impact."

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Researchers say they are encouraged by the dialogue but anxious to see whether it will translate into a flow of dollars to research labs. Currently, the federal government invests about $3.5-billion a year in academic research, primarily through three granting councils for health, social and natural (meaning physical and non-medical biological) sciences and the Canada Foundation for Innovation. The Naylor panel would see that base level of funding rise to $4.8-billion, phased in over four years, an increase that the report stresses amounts to only 0.4 per cent of the government's annual budget.

At face value, the urgency of the funding calls may seem to contradict years of announcements by successive governments unveiling research chairs and other big science initiatives totalling hundreds of millions of dollars. But behind the ribbon cuttings and photo-ops, the less glamorous federal grants that fund individual scientists to pursue their curiosity-driven work and keep university labs going day to day have been hollowed out dramatically for more than a decade. The impact of the shortfall on individual researchers, particularly those who are early in their careers, was recently documented in a survey conducted by the Global Young Academy.

"We know that the hole in investigator-led research is on the order of half a billion dollars on an annual basis," said Jeremy Kerr, a conservation biologist at the University of Ottawa and co-author of the survey results.

The case for addressing that deficit has been helped by examples that funding for basic science can generate entire industries years down the road. Artificial-intelligence pioneer Geoffrey Hinton, who was at the meeting, has lately become one such example. In the 30 years since he came to the University of Toronto in 1987, Dr. Hinton's work on neural networks has evolved from an academic curiosity into the linchpin of a technology revolution. At the meeting with Mr. Morneau, he stressed the importance of individual research grants that helped keep his work going, particularly during the years when few recognized its value. He would increase the pool of funding available for such grants by 50 per cent, Dr. Hinton said.

Cory Mulvihill, lead policy executive for Toronto's MaRS Discovery District, which aims to commercialize research, said the argument carries weight in the business sector.

"Our ventures view academic research as integral to the engine of innovation," he said. "When one part breaks down, what suffers is the outputs, which are strong companies based on breakthrough science."

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For scientists, the building expectation that something needs to happen has all the drama of a late-inning at-bat in a championship baseball game.

By that analogy, the selection of Ms. Duncan as Minister of Science in late 2015 was like a hit to first base, mainly because Ms. Duncan identifies herself with the research community far more strongly than any of her predecessors. In turn, her appointment of Dr. Naylor, an outspoken proponent of investigator-led research, to head up an independent report on the state of fundamental science in Canada is comparable to stealing second. The rallying of the research community across disciplines and career stages to "support the report" has advanced the issue to third.

Now comes the key moment. Although Ms. Duncan has championed the cause, the ultimate decision over how much Canada invests in science in the coming budget and beyond lies with Mr. Morneau and others outside of the federal science-policy circle. The coming weeks will determine if scientists can score a significant win or come away with nothing more than positive words draped around a minor funding increase.

Dr. Naylor, who met with Mr. Morneau earlier on Friday, said that he and the minister "had a good exchange of views about what might and might not have an optimum impact on Budget 2018."

But the research community must continue speaking with one voice and maintaining pressure on the government in order to achieve meaningful gains for Canadian science in the new year, he said, adding, "As my Twitter alter-ego, Oscar the border collie, sometimes says, we need to keep barking."

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