Public backs higher funding for university research

The overwhelming majority of Canadians believes in the importance of university research for Canada’s future as an innovation leader, according to a new survey.

They also believe that university research is vital to sustain local economies and tackle the most pressing challenges of our time – issues like climate change, income inequality, infectious disease and human migration; that university research should be funded at globally competitive levels; and that failing to invest in higher education would be short-sighted.

Bruce Anderson, chairman of Abacus, which conducted the survey, said the findings show that Canadians see that the global economy relies more and more on “deepening knowledge and the application of learning in the form of constant innovation”.

He said the survey reveals a broad and growing belief that Canada can succeed in this new economy and must compete in it. “They expect government to dedicate the resources to ensure that Canada competes at the highest levels.”

Universities Canada, the voice of Canada’s universities, said the polling showed that Canadians are confident in the talents of tomorrow’s leading researchers, and recognise the need to support their work and ensure they can collaborate with international peers.

The survey findings include:
  • • 92% of Canadians support increasing university research funding to comparable levels with their global competitors.
  • • 94% support investing in international university research collaboration to tackle global challenges.
  • • 94% support attracting the world’s best researchers to Canadian universities to expose their students to world leading research.
  • • 92% believe Canada must support young, talented and diverse researchers in order to retain top Canadian talent.
Commenting on the findings, Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada, said: “Canadian researchers have the bold ideas that lead to big breakthroughs. And Canada’s curious minds need support in order to produce the results that will ensure a bright future for our country.

“These results show that Canadians are optimistic about Canada’s global leadership potential, and want to see support for the breakthroughs and innovation generated by university research.”

For Abacus, Anderson said the survey showed that “Canadians see our young people as a source of strength, and want to ensure they are given the opportunities to make the impact that they can, for themselves, the country, and the broader world too.”

Crucial time

Universities Canada said the findings came at a crucial time. The survey was published as MPs returned to the House of Commons for the autumn session of parliament and will add to the pressure for investment stemming from the recommendations of Canada’s Fundamental Science Review panel, chaired by David Naylor, professor of medicine at the University of Toronto.

The panel released its report – known as the Naylor report – in April 2017, recommending major reinvestment in a stronger research and innovation ecosystem for Canada. Canada’s research community has been vocal in their support for these recommendations.

The Naylor panel recommended that “significant reinvestment” should be targeted at:
  • • Investigator-led research operating grants (the highest priority);
  • • Enhanced personnel supports for researchers and trainees at different career stages;
  • • Infrastructure-related operating costs for small equipment and ‘big science’ facilities; and
  • • Enhancement of the environment for science and scholarship by improved coverage of the institutional costs of research.
The report, Investing in Canada’s Future: Strengthening the foundations of Canadian research, painted a pessimistic outlook, warning that Canada’s research competitiveness had eroded in recent years when compared with international peers.

It said the change coincided with a period of flat-lining of federal spending through the four core funding agencies that support researchers in universities, colleges, institutes, and research hospitals.

Funding had been “directed preferentially to priority-driven and partnership-oriented research, reducing available support for independent, investigator-led research by frontline scientists and scholars”, the report said.

The years from 2006-07 to 2013-14 saw a shift in funding away from independent research, be it basic or applied, that allows individuals or teams to define their topics and-or the structure of the research collaboration.

In addition, the proportion of federally derived funding for research had also declined.

“Canada ranks well globally in higher education expenditures on research and development as a percentage of GDP [gross domestic product], but is an outlier in that funding from federal government sources accounts for less than 25% of that total, while institutions now underwrite 50% of these costs, with adverse effects on both research and education,” the report said.

The report estimated that scholars, scientists and trainees wishing to pursue fully independent research work saw a decline of available real resources per researcher of about 35% in that period.

According to an update in December 2016 by the Council of Canadian Academies, production of publications in most fields of research in Canada grew more slowly than the world average in 2003-14. This is a change from the 2012 report, which noted that half of the fields grew more quickly than the world average in 1999-2010.

As a result, Canada’s global rank in total research output dropped, from seventh in 2005-10 to ninth in 2009-14, as Italy and India moved ahead.

Canadian papers were cited at a rate 43% higher than the global average in 2009-14, putting Canada in the top six nations globally. But the growth rate ranked showed Canada is stalling relative to its peers.

In addition, Canada’s performance in winning international prizes is trailing traditional powerhouses such as the United States and the United Kingdom. It is also well behind Australia, which now outperforms Canada on several other measures.

In recent decades, twice as many Canadians have won research-related Nobel Prizes while working in the US than have been awarded to Canadian-born or foreign-born scientists working in Canada, the report said.

Policy shift

The report concluded that the recent erosion of Canada’s research competitiveness is linked to changes in federal funding for extramural research that have both constrained funding per researcher, and directed funding preferentially to priority-driven and partnership-oriented research.

“The situation has been exacerbated by a policy shift in favour of new programmes that focus resources on a limited number of individuals and institutions, without commensurate reinvestment to lift frontline research more broadly or sustain the value of existing programming.”

In an op-ed published in the Montreal Gazette earlier this month, three university leaders – Suzanne Fortier, principal and vice-chancellor, McGill University and member of Universities Canada’s board of directors; Sophie D’Amours, rector of Université Laval, and Guy Breton, rector of Université de Montréal – warned that morale is low among the up-and-coming generation of researchers to the point where one researcher starting out had told them that there’s as little chance of having a decent career in research as a young ice-hockey player has of making it into the National Hockey League.

“We can’t afford to lose this generation because of lack of funding,” they said.

The Abacus survey of 1,500 Canadians aged 18 and over was conducted between 27 July and 1 August 2017 for Universities Canada by Abacus Data.