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Panel to review federal funding for university-based scientific research

Maryna Gorelik, a post doctoral fellow, handling part of the protein purification process. Gorelik is working in the Sidhu lab, part of the Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research at the University of Toronto on Dec 10 2014.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The federal government has named an expert panel to conduct an unprecedented and sweeping review of how it supports university-based scientific research.

Depending on how its recommendations are taken on board, the panel could trigger anything from minor tweaks to a major rebuild of Ottawa's science-funding apparatus, which this year is expected to funnel more than $3-billion to Canadian researchers and their labs.

David Naylor, a physician, researcher and former president of the University of Toronto, will lead the nine-member panel and report to Science Minister Kirsty Duncan in six months.

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"The minister has given us a very broad scope and a lot of independence to take a look at the whole ecosystem," Dr. Naylor told The Globe and Mail. "That means starting off by listening to scholars and scientists themselves and hearing how they are experiencing the system."

Other panel members include Nobel prize winning Canadian physicist Art McDonald and Research in Motion co-founder Mike Lazaridis.

Ms. Duncan was given the job of launching a comprehensive review of "all elements of federal support for fundamental science" in the 2016 federal budget, but details were few.

Now it is clear the panel will look at all three granting councils that underwrite most university research in health, natural sciences and engineering and the social sciences. Also on the table will be ancillary organizations and initiatives that provide federal support for research in more targeted ways, including the Canada Foundation for Innovation and Genome Canada.

"We want to make sure we're keeping pace in a fast-changing world, … so where are the gaps, where are the challenges, how can we do this better?" Ms. Duncan said.

Asked what she most wanted the panel to address, Ms. Duncan cited, as an example, the plight of younger researchers who, in many cases, must wait until they are in their 40s to get federal support.

Another is the risk of losing the benefits of previous investments when funding rules become restrictive, such as a 14-year limit on how long the government can support one of its existing networks of centres of excellence, or the dependence of research projects that are in the national interest on funding streams that require support from provincial governments or private sources.

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The current system for proposing and reviewing research grants has been criticized as cumbersome and fraught with biases that mean the best science is not always supported.

In a paper published on Friday in the research journal PLOS One, Trent University biologist Dennis Murray and colleagues combed through 13,526 grant proposals to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council between 2011 and 2014 and found significant evidence that researchers at smaller universities have consistently lower success rates.

Dr. Murray advocates for a more quantitative and impartial system of review to keep such biases at bay.

"There are too many opportunities for human impressions — conscious or unconscious — to make their way into the current evaluation process," Dr. Murray said.

More broadly, researchers say the time is right for a look at a system that has grown convoluted and less suited to a world in which science is increasingly cross-disciplinary, and international research collaborations are more important.

"What I would impress on the panel is the need to evaluate whether the multiple structures which have been created over the past 15 years are really necessary and whether they cannot be combined in various ways to increase efficiency and value for money," said Jim Woodgett, director of research of the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum institute at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital and a frequent commenter on Canadian research-funding policies.

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Dr. Woodgett added that one of the challenges of funding science is that progress often occurs at the boundaries of disciplines, defying efforts to divide research into tidy, subject-specific compartments.

Last November, a similar report in the United Kingdom by Sir Paul Nurse, a prominent geneticist, recommended combining all seven of the UK's science-funding councils into one entity.

Dr. Naylor said he expects the panel will look at international comparisons, but also noted that Canada's research landscape has unique features, including the fact that higher education is a provincial responsibility and science funding is largely a federal role.

Martha Crago, vice-president of research at Dalhousie University, a panel member, said she and her colleagues would need to focus on the guiding principle of putting quality of research first to overcome bureaucratic inertia on changing the system.

"I think this has the possibility to be a real refresh for us as a research community," she said.

In addition to Dr. Naylor, Dr. Crago, Dr. McDonald and Mr. Lazairidis, the panel will include:

Robert Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California Berkeley; Claudia Malacrida, associate vice-president (research) at the University of Lethbridge; Martha Piper, acting president of the University of British Columbia; Remi Quirion, chief scientist for Quebec's provincial government; Anne Wilson, a professor of psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University and a fellow in the Successful Societies program of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

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