Build a focused research system, report warns, or watch the brain drain

Mark Lowey
July 12, 2023

Canada risks an unprecedented “brain drain” of young scientists, unless there is an immediate funding increase for graduate students and post-doctoral fellows and national research funding agencies, according to the head of an advisory group appointed by Ottawa.

Dr. Frédéric Bouchard, PhD, who chaired the seven-member Advisory Panel on the Federal Research Support System and its report, urged the government to boost this funding in the coming fall economic statement.

“The risk of brain drain is only increasing,” Bouchard, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science and professor at the Université de Montréal, told Research Money. “At the graduate student level and post-doc level, it’s becoming very difficult to explain why they should accept a Canadian offer instead of a generous U.S. or European offer.”

The advisory panel’s report was submitted to Innovation, Science and Industry Minister François-Phillipe Champagne and to Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, and publicly released in March. The panel heard from more than 1,000 stakeholders across Canada and consulted with officials in Germany, Norway, the UK, France, and the US.

The panel’s 21 recommendations included increasing graduate scholarships and post-doc fellowships to internationally competitive levels. The panel also recommended giving each of the Tri-Council granting agencies an immediate 10-percent annual increase over five years to their total base budgets, which would go to core grant programming.

Those agencies are the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

The panel pointed out that NSERC’s budget, for example, is currently about 3.7 percent lower than it was in 2007 (in 2007 constant dollars). In contrast, over roughly the same period (2007 to 2022), the US National Science Foundation’s budget has grown by 5.2 percent, and the Australian Research Council’s budget by 1.1 percent. 

In Canada, the vast majority of about 35,000 grad students and post-doc trainees are supported through their professors’ research grants from the council agencies, Bouchard noted. “If you want to stabilize early-career researchers’ funding, you have to act both on the scholarships and on the council funding.”

In contrast with Canada’s declining funding for research, the American CHIPS and Science Act commits some US$81 billion over 10 years to the National Science Foundation, an increase of about US$36 billion over the existing baseline. Japan has announced its own historic increase, creating a US$87-billion fund for science and technology. The UK has likewise committed to increasing annual government investment in R&D, reaching a record $20 billion by 2024-25.

Germany plans to increase research investment to 3.5 percent of GDP by 2025, and Finland to 4 percent of GDP by 2030. Canada currently sits at about 1.6 per cent.

Canada’s international ranking for the number of researchers per 1,000 employed in Canada fell from 8th among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries in 2011 to 18th in 2019.  According to the panel’s report, this drop has occurred even as demand for highly qualified personnel to drive innovation across all sectors of the Canadian economy has been increasing.

Despite the panel’s warnings about Canada's lagging performance, federal Budget 2023 provided none of the recommended research funding increases. Panel member Dr. Laurel Schafer, PhD, professor of chemistry at the University of British Columbia and a Canada Research Chair, said Canada has reached a “crisis point” in terms of an impending brain drain.

“I am seeing this very actively in my graduate student recruiting efforts and my ability to convince Canadian top scholars to remain in Canada for their graduate studies,” she said in an online presentation of the panel’s report hosted by the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC).

The panel report shows how the value of federal government’s awards for university research trainees has remained virtually stagnant for the past 20 years, resulting in a lower material standard of living for grad students and post-doc fellows than those available in comparable countries. Along with a “very fragmented” process of applying for awards, Schafer placed this compensation well below international standards and considerably lower than in the US, which has become a preferred destination for many Canadian graduates.  

“This situation has significantly eroded Canada’s position as a global hub for the attraction and retention of research-enabled talent, and this erosion will be accelerated by the increase in investment by our global peers."

“Significant fragmentation” in Canada’s research system

Canada’s research enterprise is supported with a $4-billion annual investment through the three granting councils and the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

However,  the advisory panel report reveals how disjointed that support has become, as the Canada Research Coordinating Committee and other initiatives have neither harmonized nor focused the system.

“There is significant fragmentation across the system, with granting councils and a number of other different and disconnected entities often tasked with similar but uncoordinated mandates, many of which are sub-scale," states the report. 

Nor is any of this a recent development. A Research Money op-ed, written 10 years ago by contributor Paul Dufour, highlighted this fragmentation and the lack of a single portal or concierge service for research grants.

For his part, Bouchard said the Tri-Council agencies do a very good job at funding investigator-led research. “But that fragmentation in the overall system hinders various types of research, basically interdisciplinary, mission-driven, and international collaborations.”

The panel’s report noted that the granting councils were not originally created with collaborative mandates to manage programs and policies, or to provide coordinated strategic responses to broad interdisciplinary challenges now facing the research community.

The panel therefore recommended a complementary governance mechanism — dubbed the Canadian Knowledge and Science Foundation (CKSF) — providing this kind of managerial oversight, to be launched by 2024. The CKSF would coordinate interdisciplinary, mission-driven research, inter-sectoral research initiatives, and international collaborations. It would also manage and streamline the suite of graduate scholarships and post-doc fellowship programs now scattered across different federal agencies, including the Canada Research Chairs program and the Canada Biomedical Research Fund.

The CKSF's mandate would support coordination and planning across the research support system by providing a mechanism for the three granting councils, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, Mitacs, Genome Canada, and other key funding partners to streamline, harmonize, integrate and coordinate programs, processes and policies. A key function of the CKSF would be developing an integrated strategic research plan for the research support system, informing individual strategic plans of the council agencies and other research funding partners.

The CKSF would be headed by a president, a new leader with excellent scientific, leadership, and managerial credentials, who would report to a board with academic, industry, government, Indigenous, and other pertinent representation. That board, in turn, could be chaired by Canada’s existing chief science advisor.

“One-stop” entry point required for mission-driven research

Panel member Dr. Janet Rossant, PhD, a professor at the University of Toronto and president and director of the Gairdner Foundation, recalled international partners consistently telling the advisory panel they did not know who to approach in Canada when proposing international mission-driven research collaborations,.

“The governance of [the CKSF] and having a one-stop entry point for mission-driven research will make a huge difference,” she said during the CSPC's online presentation.

Rossant explained how the CKSF would replace the Canada Research Coordinating Committee. The new governance body would coordinate and link fundamental, investigator-driven research to more mission-driven research, then link to innovation and commercialization activities that are priorities for government, industry, Indigenous partners, provinces and territories, and other players in Canada’s research and innovation ecosystem.

“We see it (the CKSF) as being the first step in really enabling a strategic response and a strategic plan for research and innovation in Canada,” she said.

Nor should the new Canada Innovation Corporation (CIC) take on this responsibility, Bouchard told Research Money. The CIC is designed to be business-facing, demanding expertise geared toward commercialization, he argued, suggesting interdisciplinary mission-driven research need not all be commercial or driven primarily for economic reasons.

In addition, some missions could be proposed and funded by multiple government agencies, perhaps in partnership with industry, or could come from expert committees or philanthropic groups.

“Basically what we don’t have now in Canada is a tool to do that effectively," said Bouchard. “You need focused actors with clear mandates,. And you need connectors to make sure that these actors don’t try to do everything for everyone, but that they pass on the relevant projects to the next actor in the system.”

The three granting councils would focus on low technology readiness levels (TRLs) in investigator-driven research, he added, while the CKSF would address low- to mid-TRLs, and the CIC and the National Research Council would focus on higher TRLs that are closer to deployment or to commercialization.

The panel recommended establishing clear key performance indicators, measured and routinely evaluated for the leadership of the CKSF and federally-funded research organizations.

National science, research, and innovation strategy needed

The Bouchard-led advisory panel also advised Ottawa to create a new independent body for national science, research, and innovation strategy, providing the government with ongoing advice in the area. This new body would develop, measure, and publicly report on key performance indicators and other outcomes of government investment in science, research, and innovation.

“The lack of a long-term strategic vision, and priorities to achieve it, puts us out of step with our global competitors and makes Canada a second-tier option when it comes to global strategic partnerships, despite the fact that our individual researchers are globally recognized,” concludes the panel’s report.

The Fundamental Science Review panel recommended in its 2017 report that Ottawa create a National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation. In response, the government set out to establish the Council of Science and Innovation and launched a process in 2018-19 to create a chair and members. However, there have been no public details on the proposed advisory council since 2019.

Dr. Baljit Singh, PhD, vice-president of research and innovation at the University of Saskatchewan and member of the Bouchard-led advisory panel, described the examination of national strategy models in other countries, including the UK, Norway, and the Netherlands.

“We do not have a coherent strategy in place to really have the pieces moving towards a defined end result,” he said. “That’s where other countries are moving ahead with creating those entities. Unless we have a national strategy where all the pieces are coordinated and our money is well invested and spent with clear outcomes, I don’t think we will be playing the global game on innovation any time soon."

The federal government has signalled its top priorities for research and innovation, by providing significant funding for such initiatives as the pan-Canadian strategies for AI and for genomics, a national quantum strategy, a digital infrastructure strategy, and a biomanufacturing and life sciences strategy. Ottawa also has made substantial investments in advanced materials and, most recently, billions of dollars for battery-manufacturing plants owned by foreign companies.

While there are strategies for specific sectors, Bouchard said, there is no overarching coordination or leveraging of these strategies for maximum research and innovation benefits. “Right now these strategies do play an important role, but they limit the scale at which we can have an impact.”

During the CSPC webinar, Dr. Alan Bernstein, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and former president of CIFAR, pointed out that the American Biden administration’s Chips and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act tie these priorities to increasing research investment.

In contrast, referring to the Liberal government’s $13.5-billion in subsidies for Volkswagen’s battery-manufacturing plant in Ontario, Bernstein maintained “not one penny — and I’ve verified this with officials in Ottawa — is going towards research. So it’s not yet in the DNA of our politicians and our elected officials that this has to be key to how we approach things.”

It is not too late for Ottawa to tie its industrial strategy to research investment, Bouchard acknowledged, “but we haven’t seen that yet.”

He pointed out that the Quebec government made huge investments to establish a successful gaming industry in Montreal, where companies set up shop and stayed because they had access to highly trained personnel from universities. “If you want your industrial strategy to have some perennity, it has to be tied to a talent and research strategy.”

The advisory panel, in consulting with international partners, heard that funding agencies across the world want a better idea of where Canada is heading in science, research and innovation, and whether Canada’s actions will have long-term follow-through.

“This needs strategic commitments, both in terms of vision and in terms of budgeting," Bouchard said. "And it’s difficult to do in the current setup.” 

“Lifecycle” approach necessary for funding major research facilities

Ottawa’s advisory panel also recommended that the government use a more coherent, “portfolio and lifecycle approach” for funding major research facilities.

Webinar participant Dr. Lisa Kalynchuk, PhD, vice-president of research and innovation at the University of Victoria, pointed to funding challenges at the University of Victoria-hosted Oceans Networks Canada, Canada’s largest project funded by the Canada Foundation’s for Innovation’s (CFI) Major Science Initiatives program.

CFI requires any funding to be matched, Kalynchuk noted. The relatively short cycles for such funding p forces Oceans Networks Canada's management team to constantly be searching for matching amounts, instead of actually running the organization. She called the network “a gem for ocean science in Canada,” a globally leading ocean observation organization now focused on how climate is affecting the ocean.  If it could receive funding under the federal Major Research Facility program, rather than as a project, she insisted it would make a big difference to the organization’s operation.

Similarly, she cited the way funding is provided to the TRIUMF research particle accelerator, located on the University of British Columbia campus. That model does not account for escalating costs and salaries, preventing the organization from being nimble and responding to emerging opportunities. “So they need to reduce research costs each year just to survive. It creates an enormous challenge for them.”

University of Saskatchewan's Singh said similar funding challenges face the Canadian Light Source facility, a research synchrotron and particle accelerator on the university's campus.

The advisory panel recommended the federal government fund major research facilities, not on the current six-year funding cycle, but as long-term infrastructure with predictable funding on a life cycle basis, through the planning, construction, operation, maintenance, and decommissioning of facilities. The requirement to provide matching funds for major research facilities should be removed or significantly reduced, with their funding levels increased to international standards. 

The panel also recommended a national road-mapping exercise be developed, guiding priority-setting and planning for large-scale research infrastructure investments, as part of the proposed national science, research, and innovation strategy. The new CKSF governance body would work with the three research granting councils and Canada Foundation for Innovation to ensure access to state-of-the-art research facilities, tools, and instruments.           

Making the case for the value of science and research to Canada

Former CIFAR president Bernstein, while praising the advisory panel’s report as “beautifully written and well argued,” said the conversation with the federal government needs to change, to make the case about the value and importance of science and research to Canada’s future.

The topic should be a national priority, he said, because the issues Canada faces, such as future pandemics, climate change, antibiotic resistance to drugs, refugees and xenophobia, are matters of national importance and concern.

“We need to tell how Canadian researchers have contributed so much to improving economic prosperity, the health of Canadians, the future of Canada, in the face of the private sector actually decreasing the amount of money they’re putting into research over the last 20 years,” Bernstein said.

UVictoria’s Kalynchuk called the Bouchard-led panel’s report “enormously important for Canada and for our research community,” especially in pointing out how the country is struggling to support interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research and its major research facilities.

“We need to be bold as a [research] community, we need to be bold as a country,” she said. “This is not the time for us to play it safe. It’s the time for Canada to show up on a global stage. It’s the time for us to make a strong statement about research being a national priority.”

Bouchard said he has had a few discussions about the panel’s report and its recommendations with Innovation, Science and Industry Minister Champagne’s office and with Champagne himself.

“I know that they’re analyzing seriously the feasibility of implementation [of the report],” Bouchard said. “But I really do not know whether there’s a likelihood of implementation of some or all of the recommendations.”

“One should not underestimate the urgency of ambitious action on this file,” he stressed. “Other countries are taking bold and ambitious steps, and if we don’t then the world will pass us by.”


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