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CAUT Bulletin Archives

June 2005

Funding Policies Threaten Excellence

Lou Siminovitch
In spite of resources that are relatively modest for a G8 country, Canadians have made and continue to make more than their share of contributions to the world's science literature. They've made a difference. It is encouraging, therefore, that over the last five to 10 years, the Canadian government has increasingly understood the importance of investment in innovation and in research and development to our country's future economic health. The government has shown its commitment by seriously escalating funding and development of new programs. The new funds have had a significant impact on Canada's science environment, attracting world-class scientists from around the globe, including from the United States.

In Canada, resources are allocated through four major programs: the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Networks of Centres of Excellence and Genome Canada. In supporting national programs, the government is addressing important needs consistent with an aggressive R&D policy.

But in my view, the government's execution of these programs' execution compromises the very ends it hopes to achieve — innovation, a vibrant and effective research community, and international excellence and competitiveness.

Wherein lies the problem?

One may be concerned about individual facets of each program, but most damaging, to my eyes, is a prevailing policy of emphasis on political imperatives — so-called strategic or short-term objectives that end up devaluing the importance of science excellence. And without a culture that promotes quality and inventiveness, effective R&D will falter.

In allocation of resources, a major criterion for funding is strategic impact. Of course, scientists expect to be judged by the innovative nature of their work and its potential scientific impact — but more and more they are also expected to justify their requests according to other criteria that are irrelevant to science per se.

Governments have always placed priority on short-term, strategic national objectives. But they must also understand the importance of fostering and nurturing quality, the nidus, or hatchery, of innovation.

In recent years, the balance between these two objectives has changed, with increasing attention to the need to meet a broad panoply of objectives, often to the detriment of creativity. In some cases, applications by excellent investigators may fail because they do not satisfy the strategic criteria. Canada could lose forefront science and outstanding scientists, even as more mundane science may succeed. We're in serious danger of killing the golden goose — the R&D science base that will fuel our health and economic future.

The focus on several objectives is engendering a second problem. Excessive emphasis on non-scientific issues is in vogue both in preparing applications and reporting. Increasingly, scientists are being forced into an administrative mode. More and more scientists spend time at their desk (and in the shower), thinking about resource accrual rather than spending time in laboratories doing research. Much of their effort is directed to satisfying strategic requirements rather than scientific objectives. Are we promoting those with better writing and administrative skills rather than those with the best ideas? We are seeing the emergence of scientific entrepreneurs — individuals who, even early in their careers, are focusing on resource accrual at the expense of their science agenda.

A third wrinkle has surfaced in recent years: the priority placed on collaboration, obligatory partnerships and co-funding.

Let me explain "co-funding." It's a process in which a funding agency provides only a fraction of the cost of the project. The scientists must then find the other funds from alternative sources. This has the effect of "extending" the apparent funding of the agency, but it doubles the work for the researcher. In some circumstances, it can work well (in, say, industrial partnerships) but it also means that the ultimate decision to fund is based on whether the scientist has secured the co-funding, rather than on the project's scientific merit. There's much virtue in policies that promote such initiatives, but where they've become the sine qua non for success in funding, excellence is not well served.

We all understand innovation will fuel future industrial competitiveness, but it's less well understood that the nidus of innovation is best catalyzed by allowing scientists to dream. Emphasis on strategic objectives, partnering, and due diligence won't do the trick.

The late Dr. Bill Bigelow, a Toronto cardiac surgeon, was an innovator in the use of hypothermia in heart surgery and the development of the heart pace- maker; he had an unprecedented impact on health care and industry. There's no doubt that Dr. Bigelow would fare badly in the present funding environment. By its very nature, great science does not lend itself to traditional auditing operations.

We are on our way to correcting Canada's long-standing dearth of research funds. But in correcting that problem, we have created another one: a culture that is unattractive to those who are able to make a difference.

Why have we come to this point? In my view there is insufficient dialogue between working scientists and those making the policy decisions. In general, policies are often being developed by individuals or bodies who are more attuned to political objectives, who often have little understanding or empathy with science and scientists. Under these conditions, it is understandable that strategic imperatives and short-term objectives dominate the resulting allocation priorities.

Left as is, the flowers will die on the vine.

The opportunities and challenges to scientists worldwide have never been so propitious. This is especially true for Canadians because of government's recent investments in research. In bringing these issues forth, I'm not proposing a retrenchment of resource funding. On the contrary, our future com- petitiveness will require expansion of research support, but it will also require concomitant policies that abet rather than inhibit the work of scientists.

Dr. Lou Siminovitch, who has been called the father of Canadian genetics, played a key role in the initiation and early years program of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, and has been responsible for the creation of CIAR's evolutionary biology program.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of CAUT.