Canadian Society for Molecular Biosciences

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CSMB Recommendations for Canada’s Fundamental Science Review

Executive summary:

The Canadian Society for Molecular Biosciences (CSMB) represents thousands of the country’s leading biosciences faculty members and students. Our members’ research programs are largely dependent on operating funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). Changes in the research funding priorities by these federal agencies, along with the proliferation of many new grant programs, have eroded funding for discovery science placing the foundation of innovation and future applications in Canada at great risk. Our members do not believe that Canada’s current funding model is adequate for science funding. As Nobel laureate John Polanyi has recently pointed out in the Globe & Mail, science funding has been neglected by the Government of Canada. We need to rebuild funding for science to restore our nation’s ability to discover. As “new ways of thinking precede new ways of doing” building a coordinated and inclusive funding model for fundamental science is an essential prerequisite in order for Canada to play an increasing role in the global innovation economy.

The CSMB presents the advisory board with three recommendations which are essential to build a fundamental research environment that will allow for Innovation to be the bed-rock of Canada’s future economy:

Building an Internationally Competitive Funding Model that Promotes Excellence and Exploration. The Scientific Advisory Board of the Secretary General of the United Nations suggests that national research and development (R&D) funding should be at 3.5 per cent of GDP. Not only should Canada aim to bring its research funding up to similar developed nations, but it is essential for these investments to be targeted to independent investigator-driven operating funding (via CIHR and NSERC open competitions) and continued investment in infrastructure (via the CFI).

Creation of a Governing Research Council (GRC) in Canada. In an interdisciplinary research environment with finite funding for research, Canada must coordinate its efforts across disciplines to the most effective programs, including governance of research funding, stream-lining of application process and standard operating procedures for review panels. The GRC should also assess, and if necessary consolidate, agencies and funding programs other than those managed by the TriCouncils and the CFI.

Innovation Built on Inclusivity and Diversity. Advancements in science truly relies on scientific talent. Canada must address the fundamental reasons for the lack of gender equality and minority representation in STEMs to ensure a robust innovation pipeline and unfettered access to economic opportunities for over half of the Canadian workforce.


1.  Building an Internationally Competitive Funding Model that Promotes Excellence and Exploration for Discovery Research.

Research funding was largely maintained in recent years and even increased in some targeted areas. However, the granting councils CIHR and NSERC simply have not kept up with the increased research capacity we have built over the last decade with investments from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) programs. Further, changes to the open operating grant programs at both NSERC and CIHR that put increased emphasis on immediately translatable research have resulted in an unprecedented decrease of both success rates and funding level for basic researchers, especially at CIHR. In addition, the proliferation of “matching” programs (e.g. Brain Canada, Genome Canada, Strategy for patient-oriented research - SPOR, CERC, CFREF) has drained additional resources away from funding discovery science. We are concerned about the steady erosion of research capacity this has caused and the consequences for Canada’s innovation pipeline.

OECD data for 2014 indicate that Canada only spends 1.6% of its GDP on Research and Development (R&D), compared to the average OECD nations at 2.4% of GDP. We strongly encourage the Government of Canada to work over a predictable time frame towards increased spending on R&D to 3.5% of the GDP as in the most aspiring nations such as Japan, Korea, Sweden, Finland and Israel as recommended by the Scientific Advisory Board of the Secretary General of the United Nations. Increased funding for R&D in Canada will enable our country to establish a complete and competitive discovery science and innovation pipeline in the natural sciences and in health research – from foundational discovery research to commercialization.

Below we make key recommendations to ensure that Principal Investigator (PI)-driven research remains a driver for Innovation:

  • Increased financial commitment to fundamental discovery research in Canada.  The average NSERC Discovery Grant in 2015 was $32,132/year, which is insufficient to support modern research that is at the cutting edge internationally. Similarly, the steady erosion of the funding base, together with the reforms at CIHR, have led to hundreds of our best biomedical research laboratories across the country to contract their research efforts or close. We recommend continued increases in the budgets of both CIHR and NSERC to be targeted to investigator-led research funded through the Discovery Grants Program at NSERC and the Project/Foundation Programs at CIHR. This should continue until Canada reaches the average OECD investment of 2.4% of GDP.

  • Moratorium on new grant programs and targeted funding within the TriCouncil until a) the GRC has assessed our complement of present programs and b) PI-driven grants have once again stabilized to 25% success rate at CIHR and a minimum of $60,000/year for Discovery grants at NSERC.

  • Continued investment in infrastructure. We recommend increased funding of the CFI for both large Innovation grants and also the John R. Evans Leaders Fund which funds infrastructure for individual researchers. Further increased funding of NSERC Research Tools and Instruments (RTI) Grants Program and the reinstatement of a modest equipment funding program at CIHR would be equally important. These programs finance urgently needed renewal of ageing infrastructure on a much broader scale that is not eligible for the CFI.

  • Elimination of requirements for matching funds for all operating research grant applications. Research funding should be solely based on excellence, not the ability of researchers to obtain matching funds. Not only does this practice place unnecessary time burden on researchers, but it disproportionately disadvantages basic discovery researchers as their work, by its nature, is not immediately commercializable and/or attractive to business.

  • GRC analysis of the impact of the CIHR reforms and the creation of a two-tiered funding system created by the new Foundation and Project schemes. This analysis should include the impact on individual funding rates, the productivity, age/gender distribution and the mobility of the system (project to foundation and foundation to project). In a well-funded environment, there should be no reason for two-tiers of funding creating essentially two classes of researchers.

  • Indirect cost program. This program does rarely lead to public announcements, but it constitutes an essential foundation for all research operations. Universities are currently not able to adequately support the basic operations of research laboratories and they increasingly depend on donations, which tend to be focussed on immediately applicable research. The indirect cost program should successively be expanded from currently around 20% to a more realistic value of 40% in order to properly support all areas of research.
2. Creation of a Governing Research Council (GRC) in Canada.

Over the course of the last few decades there has been a dramatic increase in the number of federal agencies funding research. The Government of Canada’s research funding and awards portal list over 35 agencies and programs funding operational, infrastructure, trainee scholarships or career awards for researchers. This has created not only duplications of administration, a complex mix of application and review processes, but has left Canada with uncoordinated research efforts that are occurring in “silos”. In addition, targeted programs such as Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF) and Networks of Centres of Excellence, while potentially having merit in targeted areas, need to be critically re-evaluated for their true benefit to innovation beyond what could be administered directly through the Tri-councils.

Today advanced research is interdisciplinary, with traditional boundaries of research disciplines fading. Yet we see that there continue to be artificial barriers between Canada’s two premiere science funding agencies – CIHR and NSERC. A good example of this is medicinal chemistry which is caught between two solitudes. While chemistry is the traditional “domain” of NSERC, because of its links to health often enough medicinal chemistry does not meet the eligibility of subject matter at NSERC and yet there is no support for hard-core medicinal chemistry at CIHR. The oversubscription of the Collaborative Health Research Projects (CHRP) program (joint NSERC/CIHR) is testimony that there needs to be more flexibility and coordination in the remit of NSERC and CIHR.

We recommend the creation of one Governing Research Council (GRC) to oversee all research funding and awards in Canada including: the Tri-councils, Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), Canada Research Chairs (CRC), CFREF, CERC, Research Network Funding (NCE), Genome Canada along with industry or targeted funding programs such as Polar Knowledge Canada’s Science and Technology Program. Further, as fundamental research is just one part of the research chain, the GRC should also coordinate efforts of support of R&D, innovation and commercialization.

This Governing Research Council would ensure that there is arms-length oversight of all of Canada’s research funding programs to:

  • Increase coordination and collaboration between programs, to ensure there is no duplication of efforts, and build the funding capacity for interdisciplinary research. In some cases this maybe require the creation of new interdisciplinary programs, jointly run by NSERC/CIHR.

  • Coordinate with provincial granting agencies, especially when establishing regional mandates for research development.

  • Perform rigorous review of existing and new targeted funding programs to assess if they are a) improving research capacity in Canada beyond what would occur if targeted funding was directly provided to principal-investigator driven research and b) determine if targeted programs could be administered within the Tri-Councils.

  • Standardization in application procedures across funding mechanisms, such as the use of a single web portal (like CIHR’s ResearchNet) to list all funding opportunities, standardization of applications including use of the Common CV, and where possible introduction of a similar format of applications. This would relieve confusion and burden on the researchers.

  • Development of standard operating procedures for rigorous peer-review for all federal funding, that would include face-to-face peer review, and standards for the selection of reviewers, including diversity (see section 3)

  • GRC must identify and approve emerging areas of critical research and quickly respond through the coordination of multiple funding agencies, if need be. For example while the recent IRDC-CIHR research call for Zika virus did have a mandate for vector studies, including mosquito studies, the call did not go out to NSERC researchers which include entomologists and ecologists who have key expertise that should not be ignored.

  • GRC should engage/consult with stakeholders from all levels of research, the public, industry and government. The GRC should play a critical role of a sound-second thought, which would prevent the destabilization of entire research communities as we have seen as a result of the recent CIHR reforms.
3. Innovation Built on Inclusivity and Diversity.

It is no secret that diversity in any field increases innovation. Yet visible minorities and women remain underrepresented in the STEMs fields in Canada, especially within academic faculty and in leadership positions. Inequity is even observed in biomedical fields where undergraduate and graduate programs have over 50% of female enrollment, and female faculty remains stagnant at less than 30% and are skewed toward lower academic ranks. If Canada is to truly build a future economy on Innovation it is essential that half of Canada’s workforce is not only included, but that the leaders that drive innovation reflect Canada’s diverse society. We feel that Canada should be doing more to ensure equity and diversity within STEMs fields:

  • Establish extra-hands awards. During the critical years of building research momentum of establishing labs, is also when many individuals start families. We recommend providing gender-neutral access to what has been dubbed “extra-hands” awards for primary-caregivers of young children, special-needs children or sick relatives to allow them to hire an extra help, such as a research technician, to compensate for loss of productivity compared to peers with-out these extra familial commitments.

  • Enforce diversity standards on all federal review panel committees. Federal funding agencies should be aiming for gender equity on all panels and should immediately establish field-specific minimums for gender representation. While admittedly more challenging to address, panels must also strive to reflect Canadian society that includes visible minorities, LGBT, and diverse age ranges.

  • Mandatory unconscious bias training. Review panel members should be required to undertake unconscious bias training. Further both panel chairs, Tri-council program staff should be given clear mandates to not only monitor for bias, but to exclude reviewers who display bias from all future panels.

  • Gender equity and diversity should be a review criteria for collaborative grants/networks. Incorporating these issues into the evaluation criteria of initiatives will not only lead to the inclusion of minorities and women who are often overlooked for participation, but will eventually change the culture of reviewers.

  • GRC systematic examination of bias in federal funding. GRC, and not the individual Tri-Councils, should undertake yearly systematic reviews of all federal funding to determine if there is any bias in success rates and award levels.

  • Evaluation of salary awards such as CERC and CRC for bias in nomination and review processes. Of the 27 Canada Excellence Research Chairholders (CERC), only one is a woman, while CRC Tier 1 Chairholders hover around 17% female. If these issues cannot be rectified, these programs should be dismantled. This possibility appears especially pertinent for the CERC program aimed at attracting foreign “stars”, a program that seems to lack a clear rationale in the current context of research funding in Canada and that could be folded into an improved CRC program with gender equity targets.

On behalf of the board, I would like to thank the committee for the opportunity to provide our input and we would be happy to provide further information and insights in person if requested.


Dr. Christian Baron
Université de Montréal

Dr. Kristin Baetz
University of Ottawa

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