A casualty has been Canada’s plummeting international scientific reputation. No wonder our scientists express desperation from the trenches.
We often hear about how well Canadian scientists perform, given the relatively meagre amounts of funding they receive. “We punch above our weight,” they say. “We are lean and efficient.” We also hear about the innovation gap, and how our great scientific achievements do not result in enough commercial activity and wealth generation. However, what policy-makers don’t seem to understand is that closing that innovation gap will depend not just on the amount of investment in research and development, but perhaps more importantly, how that investment is structured.
We have some recommendations to fix this broken system.
The most recent federal budget was met with an overwhelmingly negative response from the scientific community. With good reason: funding to the major granting bodies has been steadily declining, and as of 2013, Canada’s global ranking dropped from 16th to 23rd in expenditures on research and development relative to GDP. Much of the funding that is available has been explicitly re-oriented towards innovation, commercialization, and industry partnership. This support often requires the coordination of large teams of scientists and contributions of substantial amounts of cash from industrial partners, creating potential conflicts of interest. It also inhibits the natural propensity of scientists to explore and break new ground, and precludes the participation of many small, startup companies. A casualty has been Canada’s plummeting international scientific reputation. No wonder our scientists express desperation from the trenches.
From our perspective, the main reasons for the desperation are as follows:
A) Support for the basic research, which extends the edges of knowledge, from which great discoveries arise, has stagnated. This basic research is what keeps many scientists excited, and why they decided to be scientists in the first place.
B) Attempts to force innovation by industry often include co-funding requirements, where the industrial partner brings cash to the project. While this sometimes works, it can also create conflicts of interest and difficult intellectual property arrangements, and is not very effective at providing support for startup companies.
C) Attempts to pick winners are doomed to failure, as efforts to predict where and when breakthroughs will occur is well known to be a futile undertaking.
Changing this situation could be relatively simple, if political will is there. We have some suggestions for whichever party forms the government in October:
1) Protect basic research by committing to increased investment in the existing basic research funding programs by seven per cent per year for the next 10 years. This will strengthen our science base and make Canada a magnet for scientists from around the world. The resulting discoveries will feed into the innovation pipeline.
2) Foster science-based business ventures with competitive funding programs that provide money directly to cash-strapped small companies and their university partners. As noted recently by the Conference Board of Canada, direct funding is much better than tax credits for stimulating business R&D. The U.S. has excellent models that drive their startup culture that we can look to for inspiration.
3) Stop trying to force collaborations by putting so much emphasis on large team funding packages, and instead recognize the importance and efficiency of independent research. With this freedom, effective collaborations will occur naturally and spontaneously.
4) We need to reinvest in science for the public good. This includes supporting environmental research that is of little immediate commercial interest, allowing government scientists to actively promote their work, and encouraging outreach in bringing science to the public.
Let’s step back and take a look at where we are. In recent years, there has been much hand-wringing from governments, fretting that academic scientists are not commercializing their discoveries. Scientists then blame the government for not providing sufficient funding, and business is blamed by everyone for not performing enough in-house research or collaborating. All the while, we confront pressing problems that science can contribute to. Examples include the accumulation of plastics in the Great Lakes, making sure that our First Nations communities all have access to safe water, and the need to produce more food in the next 50 years than has been produced in all of civilization, even while threatened by pests and climate instability. Solutions to many of these problems aren’t commercializable. Let’s stop the blame game, and start working together to confront these and other crucial challenges as we build a healthy society based on science and innovation.
To face such challenges, we need to recognize that it is often not the best use of tax dollars to force relationships between academic scientists and companies. We cannot reduce the role of the academic scientist to a hired contractor. There are specialists to perform this type of work for a reason. We need to support academic scientists to do what they do best: pursue discovery, independently, wherever it may lead. We need to provide meaningful, effective support for those brave ones who wish to span the chasm from discovery to innovation.
It’s simple: make funding directly available to university scientists and science-based startup companies. We will see if the next government keeps this in mind, and gets serious about fostering the science-innovation climate they claim to want.
Trevor Charles is a professor in the department of biology at the University of Waterloo. He is also the co-founder and chief science officer of the startup biotech company Metagenom Bio Inc., and former Canadian Society of Microbiologists president. For the past 22 years, he has directed a research program in the areas of environmental and agricultural microbiology, and environmental genomics.
Alana Westwood is the research coordinator for Evidence for Democracy, a non-partisan non-profit promoting science-based decision-making in public policy. She is also a PhD candidate at Dalhousie University.