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Canadian researchers rally around funding recommendations

Holly Witteman's presentation took a personal turn when she was speaking to fellow scientists about the importance of research funding in Toronto last Wednesday.

Describing how she was in hospital with type 1 diabetes as a child and reflecting on her own two children, the assistant professor of medicine at Laval University choked up briefly and said, "I am literally alive thanks to research that happened not very far from this building – I get to be here."

The moment crystallized the message Dr. Witteman and other scientists say they urgently need to get across about the value of their work in the wake of a sweeping review of Canada's flagging research-funding system.

Commissioned by the federal minister of science, Kirsty Duncan, and led by former University of Toronto president David Naylor, the review has given researchers and funding agencies in Ottawa plenty to talk about since its April release.

Looming large among its 35 recommendations is a call for a $1.3-billion increase, phased in over four years, to the annual budget for research conducted in Canadian universities. The panel also recommended new co-ordinating bodies with the transparency and the teeth to guide the federal funding system, in part to prevent resources from being perpetually spun off into new initiatives that politicians can tout at the expense of long-term investigator-driven research.

And while opinions vary about the details, the Toronto meeting where Dr. Witteman spoke to about 200 participants, together with other gatherings scheduled across the country, show that researchers are in collective agreement that they want the federal government to act on the report in a substantive way.

"It's really about keeping this conversation moving along," said Jim Woodgett, director of research at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute and a co-organizer of the gathering.

At a separate meeting held on the same day at the University of Alberta, organizer and professor of biochemistry Joe Casey said that researchers expressed widespread support for the panel's recommendations.

"We really do passionately believe that having the Naylor report implemented is key for science across the board in Canada," he said.

The report delves into numbers that have long shown how Canada's support for fundamental science has sputtered, starting under the previous government when the federal budget for granting agencies began to stagnate. Things have not recovered much since then, despite a boost from the current Liberal government in 2016. No further increases were announced in 2017. The flat-lining amounts to a steady decline once inflation and the number of researchers competing for grants is factored in.

In global terms, Canada has been in a decade-long decline in research investments relative to the size of its economy. Those investments now sit at about 1.6 per cent of gross domestic product. In comparison, the majority of other developed countries have moved to increase their own science spending.

It is this downward trajectory that Ms. Duncan said she is seeking to redirect.

"The reason I undertook this report is I needed the evidence," she told The Globe and Mail. "I have the evidence now."

What worries researchers is what happens next. While Ms. Duncan is widely seen as a champion of science, the decision about how much Canada spends on research will not be hers to make. Some expressed concern that the report's recommendations will be sidelined or cherry-picked for measures that do not require new money or significant structural changes.

"We have to convince her cabinet colleagues, the Prime Minister and his advisers that the time is now," Dr. Woodgett said.

In Edmonton, Dr. Casey said that scientists were inviting MPs to meet with them as Parliament breaks for the summer.

Meanwhile, Ms. Duncan may be trying to manage expectations as she shapes her next steps.

"Money will be an issue," she said, noting the array of competing demands on the federal purse, including social programs.

Dr. Naylor, who spoke at the Toronto meeting, said that the increases the report calls for are small relative to the overall budget, amounting to an incremental growth in federal spending by an additional 0.1 per cent over each of the next four years.

"This isn't a competition between the needs of the research community and its ability to help this country thrive and those who are marginalized and disadvantaged," he said.

Jeremy Kerr, a professor of biology at the University of Ottawa, said that it was especially important for scientists to convey their message about funding without a sense of entitlement.

"We need to earn society's support and make clear that there are very good reasons why research is worth supporting," he said.

Editor’s Note An earlier version of this article included a chart which incorrectly showed levels of research and development funding by various sources to higher education in millions of dollars. In fact, it should have shown the measurement in billions of dollars.
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