Mark Lautens is the J. Bryan Jones Distinguished Professor of chemistry at University of Toronto
Like other researchers across the country, I woke up on the 2018 Budget day wondering what Finance Minister Bill Morneau had in store for the future of science in Canada. And like many others, I was very pleasantly surprised.
The funds allocated were only 60 per cent of what the government’s Fundamental Science Review had recommended to restore historical levels of support for research. Nonetheless, it was a game-changing shift in direction and researchers have understandably been vocal in their praise.
The response from the media and the broader public, in contrast, has been more muted. The good news is that there has not been an outcry about a generous investment in fundamental research. The bad news is that the lack of a positive public response suggests that researchers across disciplines have a lot more work to do in communicating what we do and why it matters.
The research community also faces another challenge: making the best possible use of these new funds. Our responsibility now is to generate bold new ideas and scientific breakthroughs, while training and mentoring the next generation of Canadian researchers. Not only is that the right thing to do, it is also the best way to ensure that current and future researchers get the support they need to compete internationally. Meeting those objectives is only possible if the bulk of the new funds are allocated in wide-open competitions, with winners from diverse disciplines chosen by rigorous peer review.
Another priority, identified in Budget 2018, is to support the very best young researchers, those with the potential to become international leaders. That generational shift has the further advantage of creating a more diverse pool of scientists and scholars.
Now here’s the rub. The flow of new funds for the open competitions starts strong but then increases much more slowly than the Fundamental Science Review recommended. That matters because it’s not just early-stage researchers who have paid a price for decades of drift. In fields such as natural sciences, the maximum size of grants to our best-funded and top scientists has not changed in a generation. Many are struggling to remain at the forefront of fields, even where they are leaders. And if Canada truly wants to “Own the Podium” in research, it needs to keep researchers firing on all cylinders throughout their careers. A strong start followed by financial stagnation is clearly not a winning strategy.
On the one hand, competitions need to be organized so that meritorious young scholars can get their research programs off to a fast start. Thereafter, as with everyone else, they will have to sink or swim through competitive peer review. On the other hand, the two largest federal agencies need to reconsider the way they support mid-career and senior scientists. The health research council, with success rates in its open competitions running at about 15 per cent, has concentrated funding in the hands of very few. The sciences research council, in contrast, has spread funding thinly to sustain success rates over 60 per cent – well above international norms. With new funding comes the opportunity to find a happier balance: maintain a broad base of active researchers but provide better support for early-career scientists and far more competitive levels of support for top-ranked mid-career and senior scientists so we can compete with the world’s best.
In sum, Science Budget 2018 represents a major step toward remedying the problems created by underfunding fundamental research over the course of two decades. There are further shortfalls that still need attention from the federal government in the years ahead. But scientists and scholars must clearly do their part – more and better research and much more engagement with the public. Finally, the federal funding agencies need to start rewarding excellence with increased funding of our best, at all career stages. Opportunity is knocking and the granting councils and scientific community each need to do their part.