CSMB Recommendations for Canada’s Fundamental Science
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
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
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
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.
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
- 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
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
- 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