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WHAT'S NEW  ::  CSM & Microbiology

CSM & Microbiology

October 27, 2017
Restoring Canada’s Competitiveness in Fundamental Research: The View from the Bench

Executive Summary

Supporting applied research at the expense of fundamental research erodes innovation. It limits the discoveries that are available to catalyze new scientific innovations and it diminishes the pool of talented scientists, most of whom want to be part of both fundamental and applied research endeavours.

In addition to its practical benefits, fundamental research plays a major role both in inspiring the next generation of Canadians to choose science as a career and in fulfilling a basic and widelyshared human need to understand the universe and our role in it. Despite their usual absence from any quantitative metric of the importance of science, these roles are critical and should no longer be discounted.

In this report, we investigate the breadth and significant impact of declining support for fundamental research in Canada. We first analyze publicly-available international data on research expenditures to compare Canada’s recent performance in this arena with other countries. Next, focusing on Canadian researchers within academia (because these researchers lead most fundamental research in Canada), we evaluate trends in funding for fundamental and applied research within each of the tri-council agencies (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)), which are the primary funding sources for these researchers. We then assess trends in a critical, but rarely measured, metric: availability of research funding per higher-education researcher. We complement these quantitative analyses with a timeline of recent key events and related public commentary on shifting support for fundamental research in Canada in high-profile media sources. We also present results and supporting statements from our 2016 on-line survey, which provided a voice for Canadian researchers to communicate the impacts of declining fundamental research support on their research programs and the consequences of these changes for sustaining research excellence in Canada. We conclude with clear recommendations based upon our analyses regarding the specific measures and investments needed to reverse the erosion of support for fundamental research in Canada.

In contrast to many other countries, Canada’s gross domestic expenditures on research and development (GERD) declined considerably over the decade from 2005 to 2014, from 1.98% of GDP to only 1.61%. By comparison, the world’s research-leading countries spend more than 4% of their GDP on R&D. As a consequence of these changes, Canada dropped from fourteenth to twentieth place amongst the 34 OECD member countries in GERD rankings between 2006 and 2014, and Canada now lags significantly behind both the overall OECD average and the G8 average in terms of its investment in R&D. Analyses of the proportion of Canada’s GERD dedicated to fundamental research and comparisons of these investments to other nations could not be undertaken because—unlike every other G8 nation— Canada does not report these data to the OECD. Reduced investment in overall R&D does, however, reflect diminishing capacity for discovery and innovation across Canada’s research landscape.

Fundamental research was hit particularly hard by general declines in federal research support in Canada as revealed by analyses of trends at the three major research councils (NSERC, SSHRC, CIHR) between 2005 and 2015. Sharp declines in success rates for grant applications to fundamental research programs at SSHRC (from 40% to 23%) and CIHR (from 28% to 14%) are one indicator of this change. CIHR researchers in particular were confronted with a volatile funding landscape over this period, with sharp increases in grant funding for applied research and declining expenditures on fundamental research grants. At NSERC, although declines in success rates were less drastic over this period, real expenditures on fundamental research declined significantly while expenditures on applied research more than doubled.

Full Report

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