Negative response from the scientific community to previous federal budgets makes clear just how broken and ineffective the current funding system is. There is a clear disconnect between, on the one hand, the positive responses from the funding agencies and university leadership, and on the other hand, the expressions of desperation from scientists in the trenches. From my perspective, the main reasons for the desperation are 1) stagnated support for basic research, 2) attempts to force innovation by ineffective and obstructive industry co-funding requirements, and 3) futile efforts to predict the areas in which breakthroughs will occur. Let's fix this broken system. It's not just about how much investment goes to science, but is more about how that investment is structured. I have some recommendations.
1) There will be no innovation without basic research. Let’s protect basic research with open competitions, and commit to increased investment in these programs by 7% per year for the next 10 years. Our science base will be considerably strengthened and Canada will become a magnet for scientists from around the world.
2) We need to do a better job fostering new, science-based business ventures. Small companies, where much of the real innovation should be happening, often don’t have the resources to provide co-funding for the existing university / industry partnership programs. Let’s introduce competitive partnership programs where startups and small companies are funded along with the university partners. See the SBIR programs south of the border for examples of how this can work.
3) There is perceived tension between the research and innovation goals of the funding agencies. Let’s move the leveraged, less competitive partnership programs out of the science funding agencies to another agency that can focus on business development, such as NRC.
4) Big Science is not always the best science. Independent investigator driven research is often more effective. Stop trying to force collaborations by putting so much emphasis on large team funding packages. Effective collaborations will happen naturally and spontaneously as needed.
5) Government scientists have important roles to play in carrying out research that is in the best interests of all Canadians. There is also potential for government scientists to play an outreach role in bringing science to the public. We need to reinvest in government scientists and science for the public good, and actively promote their work.
For an expanded op-ed, please see the following link.