Perspectives on funding science: Making the most of opportunities

Right now, the federal government is engaged in the Fundamental Science Review, where they are evaluating the government’s funding and support of fundamental research. You can find out more about the review process, and how to help shape Evidence for Democracy’s input to the Science Review’s advisory panel. 

Upcoming changes to academic science funding have the potential to make or break Canada's capacity as an international leader in science. In this blog post series, we've asked researchers to weigh in on the potential impacts of the Fundamental Science Review why a funding review matters not just for scientists, but for Canadians.

In our first blog post of the series, Josh Neufeld, professor of biology at the University of Waterloo, tells us about oft-overlooked but crucial facet of science funding: strategic funds for rapid responses to emerging opportunities.

 

As a new Canadian university scientist in 2007, my first task was to apply for a Discovery grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). The Discovery Grant program provides critical baseline support for natural sciences and engineering research programs in Canada and associated basic research projects. After months of tense anticipation, I received news of my proposal’s success: $120,000… over 5 years. Although this is a common level of funding for new faculty members, my heart sunk because $24,000 per year was a third of what I required and requested, and this amount would only fund research by a single graduate student. Realistically, the immense flexibility and high success rates of Discovery Grants are specifically because it is not anticipated that these grants will fund a research program in its entirety. Instead, this grant serves as seed funding to keep professors going while they pursue other major grants for the balance of their programmatic needs. In this sense it works well because it prevents young faculty from “withering on the vine” if they are unsuccessful in their first few grant applications, which is something that has been highlighted recently as a problem in the US and elsewhere.

Fortunately, I had accepted a Canadian faculty position partly because I was aware that exceptional cutting-edge discovery research could be pursued at any time by applying to the Special Research Opportunities program. This NSERC program “supports unique, emerging research opportunities that are timely, urgent, high-risk or have a strong potential for breakthrough that will be of substantial benefit to Canada”. With such a timely and urgent project in mind, I completed an SRO proposal and called NSERC for submission instructions. Surprisingly, I was informed by an NSERC contact that, although the website had not yet been updated, the SRO program had been cancelled in response to Budget 2009.

Without the SRO program, there are no alternative Canada-wide funding opportunities to support the following emerging research opportunities (quoted from the NSERC SRO website):

A project that can be undertaken only in conjunction with a specific and unusual world event.

A workshop to define and plan Canadian participation in a major international research initiative.

An interdisciplinary effort to address an emerging problem of importance to Canada.

A project that leads to, or exploits, a breakthrough discovery which establishes or maintains Canada’s international leadership position in a niche area.

A novel, high risk project with the potential to change the direction of thought in a discipline or open up new areas of discovery.

Exploring the Awards Database of NSERC reveals a strong historical legacy of cutting-edge scientific research projects funded by the SRO. From my perspective as an environmental microbiologist, some of the most notable funded projects included exploring the: impact of ocean-atmosphere interactions on climate change (Maurice Levasseur, Université Laval), vast biodiversity of microbes in the ocean (Connie Lovejoy, Université Laval), genetics of adaptation to new environments (Dolph Schluter; University of British Columbia), role of hydrogen as a controller of marine nitrogen fixation (Robert Moore, Dalhousie University), ability of cold-loving microbes to clean up metal-contaminated soils (Derek Peak; University of Saskatchewan), microbial life deep in the Earth’s subsurface (Barbara Sherwood Lollar; University of Toronto), de novo creation of stem cells (Marc-André Sirard; Université Laval), genome analysis of pollutant-degrading microbial communities (Elizabeth Edwards; University of Toronto), and microbial origins of life on Earth (John Archibald; Dalhousie University).

One particular past SRO recipient was featured prominently in the news this year: Dr. Barbara Sherwood Lollar (University of Toronto). Dr. Sherwood Lollar was recently named as the sole 2016 Companion to the Order of Canada for her scientific discoveries. In addition, her lab’s research was also recognized in 2016 through the NSERC John C. Polanyi Award for outstanding NSERC-funded research. As a 2007-2008 recipient of a SRO grant, Dr. Sherwood Lollar credits this federal funding program in large part for her discoveries of ancient groundwaters and active microbial communities deep in the Earth that have enormous implications for the evolution of life on this planet and also on Mars. When I asked Dr. Sherwood Lollar about the SRO program, she indicated that: “The SRO was a vital mechanism for providing the critical catalyst that allowed our research team to partner with a NASA Astrobiology Institute Research team exploring global subsurface systems for deep life. Without this source of Canadian funds that allowed us to submit a large grant proposal, provided rapid and timely peer-review, and contributed salaries and research support for students and postdocs, we would not have been able to participate with our international colleagues as full partners. The NASA research involved exploration at Canadian sites with some of the world’s foremost geomicrobiologists and astrobiologists travelling to Canada for the field work! But due to US restrictions on funding, if we had not secured the NSERC SRO funds, few Canadian HQP would have been participating in this program. The SRO was a vital part of the research funding landscape, enabling Canadians to react quickly to seize scientific opportunities, respond creatively to new research challenges, and contribute to international and interdisciplinary science at the highest level. It was a unique and highly effective mechanism to catalyze high risk and high impact research and training”.

Reinstating and increasing funding to the SRO program would help heal a science portfolio wound that puts Canadian academic scientists at a global disadvantage. Admittedly, the SRO program was not a relatively large piece of the science funding pie, but it represented a critical lifeline for Canadian academics who are perpetually on the verge of scientific breakthrough and who are often approached for participation as members of large-scale international research opportunities. There is no other Canadian funding source enabling timely pursuit of basic research discovery in these ways. Coupled with healthy funding for the Discovery Grant program, a reinstated and expanded SRO program would enable Canadian scientists to pursue unexpected research directions with the help of graduate students and postdoctoral research fellows, teaching them “how science works” in the process. Indeed, as scientists, we are trained to make discoveries, turn on a dime in the face of unanticipated observations, and generate knowledge capital that will result in the applications and innovations of tomorrow for all Canadians.

Reinstating the SRO program would reinvigorate Canadian academic scientists, help reinforce that basic research serves as the cornerstone of Canadian science and innovation, and enable Canadian scientists to serve as collaborators for future international research opportunities.

Kathleen Walsh

Director of Policy

Kathleen Walsh is driven by a passion for social innovation and finding ways to make policy more efficient, inclusive, and evidence-based. She serves as Evidence for Democracy's Director of Policy, and was previously the organization's Interim Executive Director.