Building pyramids from the top down
The useful mission creep of a government panel on research
In the fake BBC documentary series Cunk on Earth, Diane Morgan, in character as the witless documentarian Philomena Cunk, asks an Egyptologist whether the Great Pyramids were built from the top down or the bottom up. We are meant to laugh. The comparison came to mind as I was reading the new report of an Advisory Panel on the Federal Research Support System. It basically says there’s less and less of a support system for federal research. The current government has become obsessed with tops of pyramids. Their work is suffering. It is surprising that, like Cunk, they need this pointed out.
What follows is nerdy. Oh well. I have been following the efforts of successive federal governments in the fields of science, research and innovation for more than 20 years, and am overdue for a nerdy update. Besides, in the very few corners of the Trudeau government where anyone pays any attention to science policy, those people are probably hoping nobody will make a fuss about the Advisory Panel’s report. And I live to disappoint them.
The panel’s chair is Frédéric Bouchard, the Dean of Arts and Sciences at the Université de Montréal. The panel was struck last October by François-Philippe Champagne and Jean-Yves Duclos, the federal ministers of industry and health. Its composition is robust, including the president of Memorial University in St. John’s, the dean of the McGill business school and the VP research of the University of Saskatchewan. Its mandate was to look at how Canada’s effort in scientific research is run.
The mandate contained a specific omission that was obvious to everyone who follows this file: Bouchard’s marching orders contained no mention of funding levels, and the government plainly hoped his report wouldn’t mention money either. That’s because this government has already had an expert report on science research, released in 2017 by former University of Toronto president David Naylor.
That report called for an increase to fundamental research spending far beyond what the government has actually delivered. This government is tired of hearing it doesn’t support science at a rate commensurate with its self-image. It thinks Canada’s scientists are ingrates and that it should be enough to tell them, plausibly, that a Conservative government would be less helpful. One of the things Naylor and Bouchard have reminded the government is that the world’s other large economies are not run by Pierre Poilievre, and that in this real world, Canada is not acting in competitive ways.
Anyway. Champagne and Duclos asked Bouchard how to build a more “coordinated and cohesive” national research effort, one that would be “responsive” and “agile.” But if Bouchard had any thoughts on price, they heavily implied, he should keep them to himself.
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“Canada has been highly successful at generating research excellence across a broad range of disciplines, and the granting councils have excelled at their core mission of knowledge creation and talent development,” Bouchard’s panel writes. “However, their funding levels have not kept pace with evolving needs, which hinders existing initiatives and new programming.” (My emphasis. In fact, I’ll be adding emphasis where I think it helps throughout this post - pw)
Bouchard suggests what would be the largest sustained increase in support for science research in a quarter century:
“An initial step would involve an increase of at least ten percent annually for five years to the granting councils' total base budgets for their core grant programming…”
Since the current budget of the three granting councils — Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, plus the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which pays for science infrastructure like labs and research buildings — is $4 billion a year, this implies an increase to a new base of about $6.4 billion. That’s only to avoid further comparative decline in Canada’s research capacity, relative to other large countries, Bouchard writes. Gaining ground would cost more.
And while he’s at it, Bouchard joins a chorus of observers who say the Trudeau government is cheaping out on its obligations to the country’s graduate students.
“…[C]urrent support for graduate students, the researchers of tomorrow, is at a breaking point. The values of the government's awards for university research trainees have remained virtually stagnant for the past 20 years… [T]he panel also urges the government to significantly increase funding for students and postdoctoral fellows to an internationally competitive level… Given the international competition for talent, Canada is at serious risk of another brain drain without reinvestment.”
In response to this unwelcome news, the Trudeau government is low-bridging Bouchard’s report as hard as they can. They would rather you not read a word about the thing. In fact, by their original plan, you never would have.
Bouchard’s terms of reference called for him to present “a final confidential report” by December 2022, a very tight timeline for a panel that didn’t exist until October. After what I’m told was original uproar in the research community, a very limited modification to this plan was added: “A summary of the panel's observations on the state of the federal research support system may be made public.”
Fortunately, in the end Bouchard’s report has been released in full, nearly four months after the government received it. The original confidential report’s contrast with Naylor’s 2017 report — a public launch event at the Château Laurier hosted by the Public Policy Forum, with 150 people attending — could hardly be more striking. But then, when it comes to their shiftless work on science policy, the Trudeau government has long since gotten into the habit of burying the evidence.
From 2007 to 2015, Canada had a Science, Technology and Innovation Council with a simple mandate: track Canada’s science performance against other countries’. The STIC Council, made up of university presidents, business leaders, and top-ranking civil servants, published a report every two years comparing Canada’s science performance to other countries'. The news was basically always bad. So in 2015 the Trudeau government published the last STIC council report, on the Harper government’s performance — and then shut the STIC council down. When I asked in 2017 what had become of the thing, the so-called Innovation department lied to me and told me it was still in operation. The department didn’t know I had interviewed STIC council members about the going-away party.
Bouchard picks up the story from there.
“The Fundamental Science Review panel [Naylor’s 2017 report] recommended the creation of the National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation (NACRI) to provide broad oversight and advice… In response, the Government of Canada set out to create the Council on Science and Innovation (CSI), and launched a process to seek a chair and members in 2018-19….However, there have been no public details on the CSI since 2019 and the CSI has never been made functional.”
It’s pathetic. The Trudeau government is in the eighth year of failing to do what the Harper government did routinely with little effort: reporting regularly to Canadians on the results achieved from billions of dollars of science funding. Except failing isn’t the right word, is it? The government is obstinately refusing to report.
No Canadian government has been strategic about its support for science since Jean Chrétien’s second and third majorities, 1997-2003. Chrétien cut research fundingfrom 1993 to 1997, but then built back strongly, creating the modern granting-council structure and increasing funding aggressively year after year. Succeeding governments have been less diligent and all preferred short-term headlines to long-term building.
The result? “NSERC's budget is currently about 3.7 percent lower than it was in 2007 (in 2007 constant dollars),” Bouchard and colleagues write, “while the US National Science Foundation (NSF) saw its budget grow by 5.2 percent and the Australian Research Council (ARC) by 1.1 percent (in 2007 constant dollars) over roughly the same time period.”
“While Germany plans to increase research investment to 3.5 percent of GDP by 2025 and Finland to 4 percent of GDP by 2030, Canada currently sits at about 1.6 percent,” they add.
Talent goes where it’s wanted and where it can do the most interesting work. While Canada ranked 8th in the world in 2011 for the number of researchers per 1,000 population, by 2019 it had fallen to 18th.
Most of Bouchard’s report stays closer to his mandate. How can Canada’s research effort be more coordinated, cohesive and agile? Bouchard and colleagues answer: first, keep the politicians out of it. They call for a new governance body, with a powerful director, to coordinate large research projects across disciplines. Naylor suggested something similar in 2017. The feds created a poorly-designed body with a part-time chair they could safely ignore, and kept making announcements piecemeal based on their marketing appeal, without regard to incoherence in the system. Bouchard’s new Canadian Knowledge and Science Foundation would do the strategic planning this government finds so boring, and it would be supported by a new permanent advisory body modelled on the STIC Council this government abolished.
I know how unwelcome Bouchard’s advice is now. Chrystia Freeland, who has her job because her predecessor urged fiscal restraint, is now urging fiscal restraint. It’s a lot harder to make these investments now than it was seven years ago. It’s harder to simplify a system the feds have spent seven years complicating. It’s harder to do any of this than it was to rename the Industry department the Innovation department, to hire and dismiss a Minister of Science, and to find a Chief Science Advisor who is so obsessed with going along to get along that she might as well sit in the Liberal caucus.
Bouchard was given eight weeks to deliver a secret report with no mention of money precisely because this government wanted his work to be as easy to ignore as possible. He has obstinately told them what Naylor told them the last time they asked. The same thing the next panel will tell them after they ignore this one.
I’m also aware that a hypothetical Conservative government led by Pierre Poilievre would devote its energy on post-secondary education and research to withholding research grants to punish wokeism and waging random culture-war skirmishes against “elites.” Each major party in our system uses the threat of the other as an excuse to turn in lousy work. Meanwhile Japan and Finland, Germany and the U.S., which aren’t governed by Justin Trudeau or Pierre Poilievre, manage to fund and organize science research. One wonders how they manage. By “one wonders how they manage,” I mean, one reads reports every few years that explain in detail how they manage, and everyone ignores the reports.