Notes on the Naylor Report: The Document That Will Try to Rescue Canadian Science from the Abyss

written by Andrew Zhai

If you scroll down you’ll find that Transcripts has devoted a significant amount of page-space to the March for Science. Seeing such a diverse group of people all gathered to support scientific research, to support what you do, was life-affirming. Dare I say it, we had fun covering it and so it was easy to lose sight of the gravity of what we were asking for: that governments take science seriously and devote the time and resources towards making science-based policy decisions. The wheels of political change turn slowly and clumsily. The recently released Naylor Report, an in-depth analysis on the state of Canadian research funding, puts the wheels into motion for making that change happen. It represents a systematic review of deficiencies in the scientific funding infrastructure and puts forth recommendations on how to address those deficiencies. You should read it if you’re at all invested in the future of research in Canada, but since it’s approximately the same length as the Old Man and the Sea, here are some takeaways that we feel should be highlighted:

Who wrote it?

When Dr. Kirsty Duncan was anointed as Minister for Science back in 2015, it was in the thick of well-publicized complaints from Canadian scientists about the CIHR funding process. In search of a more complete picture of Canada’s funding agencies, Duncan commissioned a panel of researchers and academic heads, led by former University of Toronto president David Naylor, to perform a comprehensive review of the current funding channels available for basic research. The panel looked at funding trends as well as Canada’s output in the form of publication and citation data, comparing our performance to that of other G7 nations.

What is the current state of scientific funding in Canada?

Bad. Canada has dropped out of the top 30 countries worldwide in terms of research intensity. What the panel found was that, adjusting for inflation as well as an increase in the total number of researchers in Canada, federal support for research has decreased by approximately 35 percent between 2007-2008 and 2015-2016. Independent basic researchers were hit the hardest by this squeeze, as most of these funds were diverted towards what the panel calls “priority-driven” research done in conjunction with businesses, government, or non-profit organizations.

Has this deficit had a measurable impact on research output?

Probably. Compared to other G7 nations as well as those in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Canada’s research output has fallen behind. Overall, we contributed a smaller portion of the world’s research publications from 2009­–2015 than from 2005–2010, falling behind the output of India and Italy.

A recurring trend was observed where Canada contributed important foundational work in fast-growing fields like Artificial Intelligence and Personalized Medicine, but has since slowed down in building on that work. Canada is also trailing when it comes to receiving international awards. A global leader at the beginning of the century, other countries have since devoted more resources into their research ecosystems and have overtaken us.

David Naylor authored the report along with a team of 8 other leaders in research and policy. Image courtesy of the University of Toronto.

How do they suggest we fix this?

The juiciest part of the Naylor Report is the panel’s recommendation that the federal government inject $485 million into research over the next four years. This would be on top of the $1.66 billion that they have already committed to both independent and “priority-driven” research, an increase of about 30%. The key is that the entirety of the $485 million would go towards independent basic researchers, representing a huge shift in focus within Canada’s funding ecosystem.

The report also suggests fundamental changes in the Canadian funding infrastructure which, taken into account would result in a funding boost closer to $1.3 billion, amounting to 0.4% of the annual federal budget.

 What are these fundamental infrastructure changes?

The first is the creation of the National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation (NACRI), which would count leaders in research, civil society, and industry among its members. NACRI would be responsible for broad-oversight of federal research and act as an advisory body for the Prime Minister and their cabinet. Importantly, NACRI would have the ability to issue its own public reports and operate mostly independently from the Prime Minister’s Office.

A second recommendation involves the creation of a Coordinating Board responsible for ensuring more even funding distribution between different scientific disciplines, including the humanities and social sciences. Also among this board’s roles would be; ensuring more equal distribution to early career researchers, identifying racial and gender biases in funding allocation and developing strategies to oppose this bias, and involving First Nations populations to better incorporate their principles in the funding review process. In short, this Coordinating Board’s mandate would be huge as they would be tasked with eliminating systemic biases that have plagued the research landscape for decades.

 I’m a graduate student. What does the report say about me?

The report is mainly concerned with the two big federal student scholarships, CGS-M (Masters students) and CGS-D (PhD students).

There are three key issues with the way in which these are currently administered: 1) the number of these scholarships has not increased since 2007 despite the fact the number of doctoral students has gone up by 38 percent since then, 2) the duration of these scholarships hasn’t changed despite the fact the duration of graduate degrees certainly has, and 3) The value of these awards varies across disciplines. The idea is that the $485 million injection for investigator-led research will trickle down to graduate students and improve issues 1 and 2. To address issue 3, the report suggests that the Coordinating Board harmonize the allocation of graduate student scholarships across disciplines.

The report also takes number of international students as an indicator for the strength of a country’s research performance. To boost foreign recruitment, the panel suggests making the most prestigious doctoral scholarship, the Vanier Award, available exclusively to international students, as opposed to both domestic and international.

I love money and this all sounds great, but is there anything I should know before I have this report framed and put on my wall?

The Naylor Report is, without doubt, the right first step in giving Canadian science a much-needed boost and any qualms with it would be nitpicking. With that in mind, it’s still important to understand its implicit limitations, one of which is the fact that NACRI’s influence will largely depend on how willing the ruling party will be to listen to it. Scientific advisory committees like NACRI have existed in the past and as quickly as they’ve been created they’ve been dissolved following subsequent election cycles. For NACRI to make any sort of lasting impact, it will need to have a longer lifespan.

It should also be noted that the report came into being after the release of the 2017 federal budget, meaning these recommendations won’t take hold until 2018 at the earliest. That might be too late for many researchers, particularly those in the early stages of their careers, who are struggling with funding today. There needs to be a sense of urgency, both among scientists and federal officials alike, to act on the suggestions made in the Naylor Report.

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