Nassif Ghoussoub: Canada has two ministers of science, yet budget 2017 barely mentions science

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      University researchers across Canada are stunned and puzzled. What happened to Justin Trudeau’s Liberals promises to undo the damage that the Harper years inflicted on the nation’s research capacity?

      The Liberals campaigned to end the “war on science”, yet they seem to be governing by the very same playbook as their predecessors. Yes, they got “science” into the title of two ministerial positions: the minister of industry is now the minister of innovation, science and economic development (ISED). The minister of state for science and technology is now a senior minister of science. But not much else seems to have changed.

      Actually, budget 2017 hardly mentions science (once you remove generic titles such as ISED, the science review, and the science adviser!). University presidents may be satisfied—or told to be—by their infrastructure funds, a couple of researchers seem to hit the jackpot, but to Canada’s rank and file researchers, budget 2017 looks pretty much like a repeat of Harper’s 2009 budget.

      There are many unflattering comparisons to be made between the successive governments, but let’s stick with the most blatant ones. Not unlike the Conservatives, the Liberals seem to find Tri-Council funding unsexy.

      After all, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council—the Tri-Council entities established when Trudeau’s father served as prime minister, are impersonal bodies that base funding decisions on the opinions of faceless research peers. For the political class, it is too much of a business as usual. To serious researchers everywhere, that is exactly how it should be.

      Following in the footsteps of Harper’s unprecedented downsizing of NSERC, CIHR, and SSHRC by five percent in the notorious “stimulus budget” of 2009 (while President Obama was boosting the National Science Foundation by 40 percent and the National Institutes of Health by 30 percent, Trudeau’s—potentially notorious—“innovation stimulus budget” for 2017, assigned zero new dollars to university research through a starved Tri-Council.

      Many submissions to University of Toronto professor David Naylor’s advisory panel argued and pleaded for the support of discovery research, and for decision-making through the peer-reviewed processes of the Tri-Council. Yet Finance Minister Bill Morneau couldn’t find a cent to add to a budget that supports thousands of senior and junior researchers, postdocs, and graduate students.

      Morneau did, however, and just like during the Harper era, find substantial funding for specific research projects, earmarked for a few “gurus” (according to the press), which were singled out by name in the federal budget: $125 million for artificial intelligence channelled through the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research but earmarked for Toronto, Montreal, Waterloo, and Edmonton; $10 million for the Institute for Quantum Computing in Waterloo; and $6 million for the Stem Cell Network.

      These one-off announcements may be splashy, but boy, how shortsighted they are. And what a disjointed approach to research, with none of the “synergies” and “network effects” the government should desire, and without the balanced approach that an effective research tradition requires.

      The shortsightedness of decisions by the current government is perhaps illustrated best by the fact that the Liberals are well aware of the emerging talent opportunities for Canada facilitated by a newly isolationist U.S. They proceeded to announce a number of new Canada 150 chairs, but failed to understand that research supports (through the Tri-Council) are really what is needed to attract talent.

      Another missed opportunity comes to mind. Canada’s mathematical sciences institutes, Centre de Recherches Mathématiques in Montreal, the Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences in Toronto, the Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences in Western Canada and the Banff International Research Station have always “played by the rules,” going through the proper peer-review systems. With their hard earned limited resources, they have been supporting much of the underlying research and technologies behind “artificial intelligence” and “quantum computing” including “data science” and “machine learning”.

      Together, the institutes form a formidable network that thinks nationally, leverage provincially, and compete internationally. They created Mitacs in 1999, and were key to the founding of the Canadian Statistical Sciences Institute in 2012, a national statistical sciences institute that a financially starved NSERC couldn’t afford to support.

      Should they now join the mad rush for political funding? After all, they are among the best in building coalitions of provinces, industry, and universities. It is disappointing that their intellectual outreach, their track record, and their strength in leveraging international and provincial support was overlooked by the ad hoc and hasty process that led to some of the government’s decisions for budget 2017.

      Not unlike the Conservatives, the Liberals seem to also like cutting the middleman (i.e., the Tri-Council, CFI) and make direct funding decisions—though they surprisingly resorted to CIFAR as some sort of a nongovernmental middle man. This means decisions about research funding are no longer in the hands of experts who review and evaluate the science, but are rather in the hands of politicians, consultants, and bureaucrats with little experience in advanced research but with lots of experience in maximizing political returns. This is unfortunate because the Tri-Council and CFI, wayward as they can be, have an integrated and balanced approach to funding research. They take the long view and have built relationships (however rocky) with researchers.

      Last year, Trudeau’s Liberals announced $2 billion for research spaces and infrastructure through the Post-Secondary Institutions Strategic Investment Fund (SIF). But, just like the $2 billion Knowledge Infrastructure Plan (KIP) announced by Harper in 2009, funding decisions for SIF are as mysterious and as political as any federal-provincial transaction. If these funds are truly destined for university research spaces and infrastructure, why don’t we then let the CFI peer-review processes allocate them fairly, adequately, and certify their true research purposes.

      Just like the Conservatives before them, the Liberals are keeping the dollars flowing toward research, while increasing their control over where it goes, which is a more pernicious trend. They followed through with their predecessors’ commitment to spend $1.2-billion on the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, which did go to (very) few university researchers. But besides the astonishingly bizarre results of the latest competition, questions are being legitimately raised on issues of accountability for such high, hence risky, dollar investments. How to measure success?

      The Liberals are also committing hundreds of millions to stimulate so-called “innovation clusters”—or was it “innovation marketplaces?”—that are still hard to comprehend, except to the few at McKinsey (we hear). Are they really investments in research, and what are the roles of universities? A scientific approach to these investments would specify target metrics against which performance should be measured.

      We are now told (by University of Toronto president Meric Gertler and University of Calgary president Elizabeth Cannon) to wait for next year’s budget, where the Naylor report may have an impact. We surely hope so. Alas, the concern is that this pick-and-choose approach to research funding is likely to worsen rather than improve during a looming election campaign, where every utterance is squeezed for maximum political benefit. The urge to sprinkle millions of dollars like fairy dust across the research spectrum risk to overwhelm the need to offer anything like an integrated national long-term vision for research.

      Canada’s researchers demand a more coordinated vision for research support in this country, one based on long-established and essential practice of peer review. The minister of science, through her commissioning of Canada’s Fundamental Science Review, elected to listen to the community of researchers and invited them to participate in setting our country’s research agenda. They did so through more than 1,000 submissions to the Naylor panel.

      The report was released on April 10, but the research community will have to wait until budget 2018 to learn if the government will be acting on it. Let us hope that this unexpected punt of such crucial decisions to next year’s budget is not too late for many of Canada’s struggling research labs and centres.

      Nassif Ghoussoub is a professor of mathematics at the University of British Columbia, founder and current director of the Banff International Research Station, the founding director of the Pacific Institute of Mathematics, the cofounder of Mitacs, and an officer of the Order of Canada. This article originally appeared on his Piece of Mind blog.