What is the future of Canada’s research support system?

May 31, 2023
Eric J. Van Giessen

by Eric J. Van Giessen, PhD student in Sociology at York University

What kind of research receives federal funding? How is innovative research defined, recognized, and supported? How does interdisciplinary work fit within the silos of the Tri-Agency funding programs (Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council)? How does Canada's research performance compare on a global scale? These are some of the many questions at the heart of the work taken up by the Advisory Panel Report on the Federal Research Support System.  

For established scholars and graduate students, securing funding to support their scholarship - especially interdisciplinary work that doesn’t fit neatly into the national funding council structure - is a familiar challenge. According to the report, while Canada has long stood as a beacon of research and innovation, there has been a concerning shift in this reputation in recent years. While other nations have invested robustly into their research landscapes, Canada's financial commitment hasn't kept up, leading to a highly fragmented and underfunded support system. This unsettling observation, along with the resulting vulnerability it exposes regarding a future high-quality scholarship in Canada, constitutes the focal point of the Advisory Panel’s report on the state of research and innovation in the country. Frédéric Bouchard presented the Panel’s findings and key recommendations as a part of the programming provided by the Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of Science (CSHPS) at Congress 2023. 

According to Bouchard, the report includes several strategic recommendations to restore Canada's global standing in research and innovation. The Advisory Panel’s central recommendation is to establish the Canadian Knowledge and Science Foundation (CKSF). This pioneering organization would work in parallel with the Tri-Council system and champion interdisciplinary and international collaborations and mission-driven research. It would harmonize the diverse entities within Canada's research ecosystem, diminishing fragmentation and enhancing efficacy. Bouchard explained that ‘mission-driven’ research is when an external need or interest determines the area or the question, and researchers provide or propose avenues or solutions to address them. This contrasts the investigator-driven research project, in which a scholar suggests the area/research question and the project’s direction and seeks funding to pursue their work. The latter would remain the purview of the Tri-Council funding programs, hopefully freeing up the CKSF to support interdisciplinary, innovative work that responds to priorities set by an external oversight body.  

Another critical recommendation in the report is to bolster the funding for the existing grant councils by 10% annually for five years. This increase aims to alleviate the strain triggered by system growth, inflation effects, and the imperative to cultivate a globally competitive research and talent pool. 

The report also advocates for a national research, science, and innovation strategy, which would endorse a coherent, targeted, and long-term methodology for propelling Canadian research. This strategy would signal to the global community that Canada is earnest about its commitment to research and innovation, asserting itself as a worthy collaborator. 

Another area of significant concern in the report is support for graduate students. The Advisory Panel found that in the past 20 years, the value of government awards for university research trainees has remained virtually unchanged. Consequently, they must catch up with the rising cost of living and international trends in research trainee compensation. This stagnation has severely undermined Canada's stature as a global magnet for attracting and retaining research-enabled talent. 

Bouchard explained that Canada remains one of the only nations to restrict funding to 6-year cycles, leading to instability and uncertainty for larger-scale research endeavours. The report also suggests amendments to Canada's approach toward supporting significant research infrastructures. The report indicates that the budget should encompass the entire lifecycle of these infrastructures, including planning, construction, operation, and decommissioning. This comprehensive support would offer a more predictable and apt backing for these vital facilities. 

Lastly, the report provides recommendations on promoting equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) and bolstering Indigenous and Francophone research. These proposals aim to ensure that Canada's research ecosystem is inclusive, reflecting our diverse populace. 

Explore the Bouchard report, including the research and rationale behind these recommendations.