One of the least debated recommendations of the Fundamental Science Review report since its release in April 2017 concerned the promotion of collaboration between federal, provincial, and territorial governments in research policy. Understandably so – this was not part of the core mandate of the review committee as the report acknowledges, and it is a rather arcane and difficult issue to address. As if to reignite the spark, on November 7 a panel led by Dr. David Naylor kicked off the 2018 Science Policy Conference in Ottawa revisiting this recommendation.
In his address, Dr. Naylor reviewed the “friction points” between the levels of government that became apparent to the review committee during consultations. Friction arises from a number of federal programs that require provincial matching funds, but whose objectives and priorities are not set collaboratively. Little to no shared strategizing happens among senior officials in different levels of government, and decisions about investments in research programs, infrastructure, and doctoral training are scatted across contexts following different logics and priorities. Seeking to overcome the inefficiencies created by our system of science federalism, Dr. Naylor called for a “Team Canada” approach to maximize national investments in research.
Such calls are very common and longstanding in federations like Canada, as Emina Veletanlić and I discussed in our panel at the conference (see our discussion paper). As national and sub-national governments have come to play larger roles in supporting research, it is not uncommon for funding bodies to become more numerous and to diversify their activities responding to those who supply their resources (politicians) and those who demand them (universities, researchers). As this happens in both central and regional governments, it is easy to see the absence of some deliberate effort at pulling everyone together, and how the different interests and needs of each jurisdiction will naturally translate into a range of funding schemes with disparate aims, formats, and objectives. This brings the advantage of allowing variety and diversity, potentially addressing regional and local needs that might otherwise be neglected. However, it obviously spreads resources around, increasing complexity and requiring greater effort from researchers and universities to navigate varying program formats and requirements.
A big part of the conversation around policy coordination is about how to align the goals and strategies of a range of agencies within and between levels of government. This is nobody’s job, and there is little incentive for anyone to initiate such a gargantuan task. The Canada Research Coordinating Committee (CRCC) was created to better integrate and harmonize the policies and programs of the four federal research councils, and this alone is a non-trivial undertaking. Following a national consultation, the CRCC has pledged to address a number of areas including how early career researchers are supported and how equity, diversity and inclusion can be better fostered. Extending this kind of effort nationally, to encompass the relevant government ministries, departments, and agencies into more strategic conversations about priorities, would be exponentially more complex and require vast doses of political will.
Another facet of this debate is how research institutions themselves behave to increase complexity in science federalism. It is absolutely no secret that universities promote special initiatives to provincial and federal agencies outside of the framework of peer-review programs, thus carving out special allocations for new research initiatives. Canadian universities are not alone in doing this; in the mid-2000s, there was some alarm among science policy analysts in the United States about the fast growth rate of congressional appropriations to universities, which were bypassing the established channels of federal funding. Universities can always use additional resources to support research, and the receptivity of governments to initiatives that promise technology-driven economic development has proven hard to resist in recent decades.
There is no easy or fast fix to this problem. However, a more rational and orderly research funding system – which is the ultimate desire behind calls for policy coordination – would be a good start – but would require the cooperation of a large number of players, including universities and research institutes. Another, harder step would be for all parties – whether they be funding bodies, ministries, or universities – to overcome the knee-jerk reaction to pursue only their most pressing short-term interests.