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From the admin chair

Making the case for discovery research

“We need to believe in ourselves and what we do, and convince others of its importance.”


This is the last piece that I will be writing for the “From the administrator’s chair” column. It is also, coincidentally, the end of my time as vice-president, research, at Dalhousie University. I am moving on by going back home to Montreal and McGill University, where I spent 41 years of my life.

It has been only a short time since another task that I was involved in came to a conclusion: the report of the Advisory Panel for the Review of Federal Support for Fundamental Science, which was made public on April 10. I thought I would use this column to reflect on some of what I learned from being on the advisory panel and from my time in research administration at Dalhousie.

First, I learned that it had been more than 40 years since a comprehensive review of the Canadian research ecosystem had been undertaken. The Senate Special Committee on Science Policy, chaired by Maurice Lamontagne, published a brilliant, multi-volume report in the early 1970s. As a panel, we realized that although much had changed, some things had not.

One change that had taken place was the creation of four agencies for the funding of university research. Through the consultations that the panel had with researchers, and the discussions among panel members, I learned that most researchers understand “their own” funding agency but know very little about another’s. At one session, a researcher in film studies, having heard complaints about the small size of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s Discovery Grants, said, “I want one of those – $27,000 would be just perfect for me.”

I also learned that our funding agencies unintentionally do not have common data systems nor the same definitions of who qualifies as an “emerging” researcher. These differences may seem minor, but in their totality they have led to a very complicated funding system. I also learned of more serious gaps, such as cases of researchers who had bought equipment with Canada Foundation for Innovation funding which had gone unused because their funding from another agency had not come through.

The panel also learned that although government money has been invested in research in Canada in recent years, much of it has been for priority-driven, partnered research. Funding for discovery and theoretical research has received less. And overall, the government’s investment in research has decreased while in most small and large comparator countries it has increased.

These represent only a handful of examples of what is documented in the panel’s report, but they raise a number of questions about the most useful follow-up to that report, such as: How can we, as a national group of university researchers, advance the argument for the government’s reinvestment in discovery research? And perhaps most importantly, how can we make the public understand why research is a worthwhile place for their taxes to be invested?

What I have learned over these years is that screaming at the government is not as helpful as clear (and sometimes repeated) explanations. I have also learned that university researchers are wonderfully critical thinkers and commentators. However, this may not serve us well if we, as a national community, end up picking apart the report detail by detail. One could well understand a government official thinking: “They don’t know themselves what they want, so how can we satisfy them?” My hope is that we can unite behind the importance of Canada investing in discovery-driven research, and that we can present convincing evidence to all Canadians that research helps us seize a variety of opportunities and meet global challenges head-on.

Some of these opportunities for new knowledge are in social, economic, educational and creative spheres. Others are in life and natural sciences, and engineering. Discovery research is both foundational and necessary to meet the many challenges that face us daily. Furthermore, the creation of new knowledge enriches the teaching that we do in our universities and, thereby, the education we provide to the next generation of Canadians. In doing so, we create a well-informed, knowledge-based society.

Let us unite and work with the government and wider citizenry so that they can appreciate investments in research. To do this, we need to believe in ourselves and what we do, make it accessible to others outside the university and, in so doing, convince others of its importance. It will take unity, tenacity and determination in our engagement with the government and the citizenry. If we can muster that, Canada will assume its proper place as a leading scientific nation.

Martha Crago
Martha Crago is vice-president, research, at Dalhousie University. Her column appears in every second issue of University Affairs.
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  1. Yves Gingras / June 12, 2017 at 14:39

    Though one can understand that the expression “discovery grant” refers to a grant that could help make a “discovery”, one is hard pressed to understand what the expression “discovery research” could mean if not a kind of tautology! For research is certainly done in order to make discoveries! What else?

    In our world of bureaucratic buzzwords, we should at least try to make those less ridiculous… It reminds me of the curious “blue sky research”… which is a very bad choice for what is a “blue sky”? Again: buzzwords cannot replace clear thinking and clear English…

  2. Jim Woodgett / June 14, 2017 at 19:39

    Wise words Martha and kudos to you and the other members of the panel in producing such a substantive and well designed report. We are already seeing “management of expectations” from government (they have multiple potential money pits in other areas) and it is indeed up to the research community to make a compelling case for support of the entire report. What your panel did not do is imagine a Canada where research stagnated. It’s perhaps too depressing to contemplate, but it would certainly not take much neglect to seriously impact many aspects of Canadian science. There is also the more immediate impact on young students who have choices. If they see a lack of investment and seriousness in government support, they’ll follow other options or fly to other opportunities.

    So, we need to be optimistic and to do our bit to explain our own stories about why research matters. It is part of our national and global obligation.