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Science Minister Kirsty Duncan ready to begin science funding overhaul

Kirsty Duncan, left, the federal Minister of Science, talks about research with Samantha Payne, centre, and Ana Fokina during a tour of the Shoichet Lab at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering's Donnelly CCBR, on Wednesday. Fokina is researching creating devices to grow liver cells.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Canada's Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan, says she is ready to start tinkering with the nation's $3.3-billion apparatus for funding research at Canadian universities, but she is not about to implement the full suite of changes recommended by an independent review that called the system chronically underfunded and in need of better co-ordination.

"I've approached it like a scientist … thoughtfully," said Ms. Duncan during a sit-down interview with The Globe and Mail on Wednesday.

The review, commissioned by Ms. Duncan and chaired by former University of Toronto president David Naylor, offers the most comprehensive in 40 years at how the government spends its research dollars in the country's universities. Since its release in April, scientists and other stakeholders have been waiting for an indication of how the federal government would respond to the review panel's 35 recommendations.

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"There were all sorts of concerns that this would be buried," said Ms. Duncan, who was previously an associate professor of health studies at the University of Toronto. "I think the research community expects me to take this back, to think about how you do this, what works … and how you do it better."

Ms. Duncan said she found herself in agreement with most of the panel's recommendations, particularly on the need for a research system that promotes equity and diversity, provides a better entry for early career researchers and is nimble in response to new scientific opportunities. She also disagreed on some points, including on a recommended national advisory council composed of experts that would provide broad oversight to the entire system. While she supported the idea of an advisory role for the council, she added that any decision-making power over research strategy and funding should reside firmly with elected officials.

"An unelected body making funding decisions? That's not okay," she said, adding that the council would have to be "open, transparent and accountable" in its operations.

Bearing in mind those caveats, Ms. Duncan said she would act on the recommendation for a new council, which would include a key role for the as-yet-to be named chief science adviser – a position she has been tasked with creating since she took office in November, 2015.

Another recommendation Ms. Duncan pledged to act on concerns the establishment of a co-ordinating body over the three granting councils that parcel out research dollars in health, natural science and engineering, and the social sciences. She said she would produce a mandate letter that publicly laid out the responsibilities of the co-ordinating body.

Ms. Duncan also said she planned to work with Health Minister Jane Philpott to change the legislation that describes the role of the president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research as also chair of that organization's governing council, which is now seen as a built-in conflict of interest.

But on several matters where Ms. Duncan supported the panel's recommendations, she also did not offer a specific deadline for implementing them, stressing instead that the system could not be changed overnight.

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"It takes time to turn the Queen Mary around," she said.

This may prove a particularly hard sell when it comes to funding, which the report indicated has for years steadily fallen short in Canada even as most developed nations have managed to increase spending on science.

Ms. Duncan acknowledged the need for more money in the system but did not say if she would be trying for the $1.2-billion increase over four years that the review said is necessary for Canada to regain lost ground.

A survey of 1,300 Canadian scientists released on Wednesday from the Global Young Academy, an international organization, noted that $459-million in funding over current annual levels was the minimum needed for Canada to fund research at the same rate it was in 2005. The funding shortfall was identified as having a disproportionate effect on basic rather than applied research.

"It means that the scientists themselves aren't able to pursue the research questions that they view as being most critical," said Julia Baum, a marine ecologist at the University of Victoria who helped organized the survey.

Martha Crago, the incoming vice-principal of research at McGill University and a member of the science review panel, said that while Ms. Duncan might have some time yet to adjust the mechanics of the federal research funding system, that system would need a significant increase in total spending in the next year or two to avoid complete disillusionment and unrest among top scientists, including those from other countries who have been attracted to Canada as a place to do cutting-edge research.

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"If we can't provide them with solid support into the future, will they really want to stay?" Dr. Crago said.

Suzanne Corbeil, executive director of the U15 group which advocates for Canada's most research-intensive universities added that while the government is faced with many competing interests, "this piece is key to Canada's prosperity."

As Ms. Duncan plans her next moves, including the anticipated announcement of a federal chief science adviser, there is ample evidence that the research community is energized and looking to her for action on funding, along with the other aspects of the review.

In recent weeks, scientists have been attending locally organized meetings across the country to discuss the Naylor panel's recommendations and the hashtag #SupportTheReport on Twitter has become a clearing house for appeals to encourage scientists to speak to their MPs about research funding.

"For the first time, we have this vision we can get behind," said Katie Gibbs, executive director of the research advocacy group Evidence4Democracy, which launched one such online effort on Wednesday. "Keeping the community motivated is really not a problem right now."

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