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More science, please, but hold the bureaucracy

It's never easy to get to the essence of a 280-page report in a few words, but let's try.

More money and more bureaucracy.

These are key recommendations of Ottawa's science-policy review.

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Read more: Massive review of federal science funding reveals risks to younger researchers

The report, prepared by former University of Toronto president David Naylor and a panel of experts, urges Ottawa to boost funding of academic research in Canada by $1.3-billion a year (to nearly $5-billion).

To ensure all that new money is spent well, the authors want the government to create a new layer of bureaucracy – the National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation, or NACRI, according to the report released Monday. The council would be made up of "distinguished scholars and scientists," as well as seasoned "innovators" from across the spectrum from Canadian society, backed by a permanent staff.

The council would work closely with Ottawa's soon-to-be announced national science adviser – part of the Trudeau government's loosely defined innovation agenda.

Ottawa already gets plenty of advice on how to spend research dollars. There are four major federal councils and agencies that dole out federal research dollars – and that's just for university and other academic research. There is also the similar-sounding Science Technology and Innovation Council (STIC), created by the former Conservative government, which provides advice on science and innovation policy to the government. Dr. Naylor and his colleagues say the STIC should be wound down to make way for the new and improved NACRI – another acronym to add to the two-page list of innovation-related terms that prefaces his report.

That's in addition to nearly 150 federal programs and tax breaks the government already has to spur innovation – both academic and business-focused.

This is, of course, serious and important stuff. Basic scientific research is one of key building blocks of thriving, productive economies.

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But let's be honest. The current federal government, and the ones that came before it, have talked a good line about improving Canada's lagging innovation performance. The shelves of the Library of Parliament are lined with dozens of reports filled with good ideas about doing things better.

They have typically led to half-solutions, partial funding or often no response at all.

Dr. Naylor's report appears headed for a similar fate. The Trudeau government reportedly had these recommendations in hand four months ago. Ottawa chose to conveniently release it nearly a month after last month's federal budget – presumably so it wouldn't have to explain why it isn't boosting the science budget by $1.3-billion a year.

The Liberals may go ahead and create a National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation. Like the office of the science adviser, these are relatively cheap and easy things to do. And they hit the government's sweet spot – rearranging the deck chairs, without fundamentally changing the way it does things.

Consider the 2011 Innovation Canada report (the Jenkins report). It urged Ottawa to consolidate the myriad of federal innovation programs, make funding more business-focused and shift its research dollars to direct spending from tax credits. Ottawa has since cut about $500-million from its flagship multibillion-dollar Scientific Research and Experimental Development program by tightening eligibility. But it hasn't put any significant new money into research, and there has been no consolidation of programs.

And now the Liberals are starting all over again. The government is reviewing the National Research Council, the SR&ED program and science policy.

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The tragedy is that all this tinkering isn't working. Canada has been slipping behind other advanced countries on many of the key metrics of innovation. While we've been writing reports, the best-performing countries have been putting real dollars into priority projects, and producing concrete results.

Doing the right thing will almost certainly cost more money. As Dr. Naylor's report points out, Canada's total spending on research and development (business, government, academic and institutional) has been steadily declining for the past 15 years as a share of gross domestic product. That's the opposite of what's happening in the U.S., China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and many European countries. Canadian businesses, which account for nearly half of all R&D dollars, spent $1.5-billion a year less in 2015 than they did in 2011 – again, while much of the rest of the world is doing more.

It's time for Ottawa to stop reviewing, and start doing.

Video: Opinion: John Ibbitson: Liberal budget touts innovation, but really offers nothing
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About the Author
National Business Correspondent

Barrie McKenna is correspondent and columnist in The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau. From 1997 until 2010, he covered Washington from The Globe's bureau in the U.S. capital. During his U.S. posting, he traveled widely, filing stories from more than 30 states. Mr. McKenna has also been a frequent visitor to Japan and South Korea on reporting assignments. More

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