The most prominent author of a major report on research funding continues to warn Canadians that they must do more to compete in a world where investments in science and technology essentially drive a country’s standard of living. David Naylor, who chaired the nine-member advisory panel that drafted the 2017 Fundamental Science Review (FSR), places much of that responsibility on the shoulders of researchers who may already feel they have enough to do.
“The community has to be in permanent campaign mode,” he said. “It requires not only something in the DNA of a society and its government, but it requires extraordinary resolve, resilience, and persistence on the part of the research community, inside and outside of government, to make the case.”
Naylor was addressing the spring summit of the Canadian Consortium for Research (CCR), which took place in Ottawa at the beginning of May. This national umbrella group is made up of 20 diverse organizations — including CIC — representing 50,000 researchers and 650,000 students. Its two-day gathering looked at some of the key challenges facing the membership, including how institutional attitudes and regulations are shaping the aspirations of graduates, who in some cases are abandoning traditional career paths to pursue options outside of any academic circle.
The FSR, which came to be known as the Naylor report, contained 35 detailed recommendations for addressing shortcomings in the way Canada supports research and development activities. It pointed to significant disparities, such as the much lower proportion of the country’s GDP that goes to these activities in comparison to the average for nations belonging to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a figure that is in turn much lower than the proportion in some of the world’s most sophisticated economies, such as Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, and South Korea.
Two years after the release of that report, Naylor acknowledges that the federal government has acted on some of those recommendations, such as creating the Canada Research Coordinating Council to target strategic, economically promising areas of investigation. However, he sees few signs of the larger commitment that will be necessary to catch up with the research pace being set by so much of the world, which will require billions of dollars in new funding for science and technology that has yet to appear in any federal budget.
“No government is going to fill in a funding hole that has accumulated over many years rapidly, especially a government that has many other priorities to act on its agenda,” he argued.
That was why he placed the onus on the research community, which has a vested interest in continuing to draw attention to this particular priority. Naylor’s call set the stage for a broader set of discussions about the culture around science and technology in Canada, including the way in which various institutions recognize and reward individuals working in these fields. For example, while the principle of nurturing and mentoring the next generation of researchers is held in high esteem, practical matters such as promotion and tenure place little or no value on activities like teaching, often consigning the most dedicated teaching staff to what amounts to inferior status.
Naylor suggested that these sorts of challenges reveal much about how Canada regards science as a part of its cultural identity, in contrast to an older society such as the UK, where science is embedded in a tradition going back centuries.
“This is a young country,” he said. “The culture of science and inquiry — its history, its rootedness, the degree to which it’s baked into the way governments think, its hold on the public service — is different.”
However, he did not regard that as an excuse for short-changing science, which insisted can ultimately take a toll far higher than economic decline.
“We have thousands of people dying of measles because ignorance is an epidemic,” he insisted. “Anti-science, anti-research views are a contagious, malign force in the world. Research is about the entire country’s future — public, private sector and civil society. It’s about talent, not technology; it’s about people, not patents. It’s about creating a critical capacity in young people and not about commercialization.”