The wild swings that affect research funding in Canada are well known to Gilles Patry. In 1993, when he became the new dean of engineering at the University of Ottawa, his first task was to announce salary cuts of three percent. Then, as uOttawa’s vice-rector (academic) starting in 1997 and its president from 2001 to 2008, Patry piloted the university through the boom years of federal research funding.

Patry has also had wide experience in his field of environmental engineering, starting as a private consultant then joining the faculties at École Polytechnique de Montréal and McMaster University where he developed a simulation model for a wastewater treatment plant. 
Now 66, Patry was appointed the president and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) in August 2010. Established in 1997, the CFI gets money from the federal government to fund research infrastructure at universities and research hospitals. The most recent top-up was $1.33 billion in the April 2015 budget. 

Gilles Patry, CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation­

Gilles Patry, CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation­

How would you rate the state of science in Canada today — the public understanding, the culture of science, not just funding?

I think we do pretty well in terms of the breadth of programs that are available, in terms of the support that we provide the community. I always like to quote the statistic that with one-half of one percent of the world’s population we produce almost five percent of the most highly cited papers. Essentially Canada has been able to punch above its weight class. However, our position is very fragile, in the sense that those stats were from 2012 but they were based on research that was done in 2002 through to 2005. For us, there’s almost a 10-year-lag between budget announcement and discoveries and innovation. As well, it’s sad to see that government research has been almost eviscerated over the last 15 years and more.

Against that backdrop, what do you think the impact has been on the public perception of science? 

I think the perception is quite good when you’re hearing all the time about evidence-based decisions. I think it reassures the public and it invigorates the research community. 

A survey for the Council of Canadian Academies concluded that about 45 percent of Canadians would not be able to understand an article in the science section of The New York Times. Doesn’t the idea of evidence-based decisions fall down if the messages aren’t being understood?

I would hope while a large fraction may not be able to read a science-based journalistic article that they would be able to make sense of the opinions that would be debated, say in something like climate change.

Wouldn’t a more accurate name for your organization be the Canada Foundation for Infrastructure, rather than for Innovation? 

A question that we are asking is, “are we the Canada Foundation for Innovation or are we the Foundation for Research Support through Infrastructure?” For every dollar that we invest in research infrastructure, in the tools, the equipment, the facilities, we invest another 86 cents in operations and maintenance, in paying the salaries of people, in paying the electricity. Many people think we only invest in infrastructure but we also invest in the people that operate that infrastructure. 

Essentially 46 percent of our funding today goes to pay operational support; 54 percent today goes to pay infrastructure. If you were to ask me, “where do you see CFI five years from now?” I think we’re going to be 60 percent operations, 40 percent infrastructure. We’re also thinking about something new that might be called the Research Facilities Performance Fund where we would provide funding to institutions to help them make sure that the facilities that have been enabled by CFI perform to the maximum level possible. And that money would be targeted for operational support of those facilities.

The government recently gave $230 million to pay for Canada’s share of the Thirty Metre Telescope (TMT) being built at the summit of the Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii. This was done without any discussion about what other major science investments would have to be foregone because of that commitment.

That’s exactly the argument that we’re making to government, that Canada needs a road map for big science investment. The road map would be a planning instrument, identifying what big science projects come on the on ramp and which ones go off the off ramp. At some point you have to say “no” to some of these projects and you have to have a sunset clause for some of those also. So my question is: what are the short-term projects, meaning five to 10 to 15 years, that we should be thinking about now and where we should be setting aside money now? Then, what are the long-term investments that we need to make either here in Canada or internationally? What I would see is communities of researchers getting organized and producing aspirational long-term research plans. So you’ve got the physicists, the astronomers — who are already producing such plans — and then groups getting organized such as Arctic science and ocean science.

Q What qualifies as big science — a project that costs a half million dollars a year?

We’re talking about projects that cost a couple of hundred million dollars; CFI can fund the $20 million or $30 million projects but for larger projects you have to be concerned about sustainability. Where is the money going to come from to keep this big science installation running? Maybe we improve the efficiency and centralize that funding into one organization. 

I am starting my last year at CFI and I think that one of the things I would like to be able to say at this time next year is that the government has committed to the development of a strategy for the big science in Canada. If I were the government I would want to know what’s coming. I don’t want to have to make ad hoc decisions on the pressures of one group versus another. I want something that looks at the interests of Canada, the interests of the research community globally and decides where we’re going to be putting our money.