R$ talks with Dr. Gilles Patry, outgoing president of the Canada Foundation for Innovation

Mark Henderson
June 15, 2017

Over his seven-year term as president and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, Dr Gilles Patry has witnessed firsthand the dramatic changes in the research landscape and the emergence of innovation as a key priority for government, academia and industry. Once considered something of an (albeit expensive) outlier in the research ecosystem, the CFI is now more closely aligned with other players, from researchers to industry. It has also emerged as a key driver in efforts to encourage cross-sectoral collaboration nationally and internationally.

In advance of his July 31st departure, RE$EARCH MONEY’s Managing Editor Mark Henderson sat down with Patry to discuss the CFI’s evolving role and the current state of science, research and innovation in Canada.

R$: How would you describe the CFI’s evolution over your tenure?

GP: Seven years ago we were signing our new contribution agreement and learning that we were now involved in funding the operational costs for major science initiatives (MSIs). We also learned that we would be funding it at 40% as opposed to 100%. And we learned this would be coming out of the $600 million that had been allocated, not over and above. That was an interesting time.

People now recognize that research infrastructure is critically important; that you can’t do world-class research without having access to big state-of-the-art facilities and that research infrastructure acts as a magnet for collaboration both nationally and internationally. I remember my meetings with Industry Canada in 2010. We had to convince them – ‘why do we need the next round of investments potentially for an innovation fund, why do we need to increase the John R Evans Leader’s Fund’.

Moving seven years forward, you look at the Naylor report and people are saying research infrastructure is a given. It’s the 4th pillar – you’ve got SSHRC, NSERC, CIHR and you’ve got CFI without questioning. So that is a major difference between 2010 and 2017.

If you look at what we were doing in 2009 and what we’re doing now, you realize that there’s been a shift from just funding capital to funding capital and operations. That’s why you see in the Naylor report this emphasis on the full cost of research and trying to address that. In our case it’s through the MSI and the IOF (Infra Operating Fund).

The third change we’re experiencing is that we invite institutions to work together in developing joint applications and sharing facilities. We need to optimize the investments to avoid duplication and maximize utilization. This has worked quite well. Where there are more than three institutions coming together to share facilities, we give them more operational support. Instead of the 30%, it’s up to 35% to help them manage that facility. We’re seeing a greater percentage of the applications now that are joint, multi-institutional which essentially goes to the fact that researchers want to work together. They are not isolationists and it helps spread the costs of operations.

R$: The CFI recommendations to the Naylor report included more money for the granting councils, a Research Facilities Performance Fund (RFPF) and a big science roadmap. To date none of these have been acted on. Are you confident that they will be and what’s at stake if there is no action?

GP: Funding for the granting councils is critically important. Obviously the Naylor report addresses that. We hope the government is going to deliver to the level that has been identified. The big science issue has also been identified in the Naylor report. Essentially they are looking at a standing committee, chaired by an eminent scientist that would provide recommendations, whether it’s to the chief scientist or through NACRI (National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation).

One of the good things the report recognized is that there’s a need for a big science roadmap. Did they go as fast as we would have liked? Probably not. The reason we were putting this as a critical element is that CFI is called upon to make investments as being part of the national and international initiatives. To have a big science roadmap is to identify what are the priorities for Canada nationally and internationally. The reason is to avoid making ad hoc decisions on big science.

A lot of these are Cabinet decisions but because of the long-term commitment, with Arctic research for example, we can’t just say, ‘oh, we’re going to be funding a big research initiative because we have the money to do it’. Now we’re realizing this commitment is not for one-to-three years of research, it’s 20 years down the road.

The Research Facilities Performance Fund essentially came out of the idea that, in Canada, the indirect costs program, or what’s been called the Research Support Program (RSP), is seriously underfunded.  The Naylor report is quite categorical in that they would like to see major investments related to the RSP. But the proposal we had put together said if the government adopts the research support proposal, then the RFPF has no reason to exist. If the government decides not to go and enhance the RSP, then the RFPF alternative we put forward to the Naylor report is a very reasonable one.

R$: What are your impressions of the Naylor report? Are you generally pleased with the contents?

GP: Yes. There are three or four key issues for us. Governance and oversight and there’s been some reaction. It does not bother us at all. What is NACRI? It’s a reincarnation of STIC with a slightly different mandate, more authority. Leadership within that would be accountable for reporting to the minister. And a lot more transparency.

The four-agency coordinating board  is nothing more than GC3+ - the tri-council coordinating committee plus CFI – again more structure, more transparency, and membership that is broadened.

The report applauds the governance structure we have so from an oversight perspective we don’t see CFI becoming an agency like the other granting councils. It gives us the independence that could very well apply to the other councils. We’ve got a double arm’s length relationship with government. The Trudeau Foundation is built like this and SDTC (Sustainable Development Technology Canada) is built exactly like that, with the same terms of reference. And it’s worked very well. I’m not appointed by government. Presidents are appointed by a board independent of government.

All of the agencies could use something like that. It has worked extremely well and when you look at the paragraphs in the Naylor report related to the CFI, they’re very positive about the way CFI has been run for the past 20 years.

One of the things that I’ve tried to convey to my colleagues at the tri-agencies is that we have to be a little bit more persuasive on the research funding issue. The funding a researcher gets is not for him or her – 70-80% of the funding received by a researcher goes to support graduate students. So when you’re cutting funds to research, or when you’re not doing as much as you should be doing, the consequences are felt by the graduates. It’s a skills issue, a training issue.

The challenge is obviously convincing government – there are many pressures on government funding and you have to convince the prime minister and the Cabinet of the need for these investments. We have a prime minister that is extremely supportive of science and a minister of Finance who obviously knows that if they’re going to be investing in creating jobs then they need the research to feed them.

R$: On the issue of CFI’s funding predictability in the Naylor report, you’ve talked about a steady state of about $450 million.

GP: They’ve identified $300 million as the steady state investment that we’ve been making. These are the disbursements, not the awards. Add on top of that 30% of IOF (Infrastructure Operating Fund) which is $90 million. Add to that $80 million of MSI. They’re looking at augmenting the IOF for the Leader’s Fund, they’ve identified $30 million more. They’re also recommending it goes (from 40%) to 60% and that is going to cost $35 million. So they’re recommending $535 million as a steady state. It’s higher for two reasons – we’re doing more because they’re adding to the IOF and they’re adding to the MSI.

It’s mostly for the Innovation Fund, which is very see-saw, very unpredictable. We’re informing universities on June 22nd of the results of the May 2017 Innovation Fund. When is the next IF? I don’t know. I have no money. All of the $1.33 billion that we got in Budget 2015 is all allocated. If we knew that we always had two (future) IF competitions that would be ideal.

R$: Is the political instability south of the border an opportunity or a threat?

GP: We just finished the IF competition – we had 121 reviewers from all around the world, multi-disciplinary, 11 committees, 11 people per committee. More than half of the individuals were coming from outside of Canada. It’s not that we choose these people but they love Canada and they love the types of things that we’re doing. People are looking at how CFI is working, in terms of our multi-disciplinary approach, the fact that we’re funding health, physics, engineering, energy all within one committee. They’re saying ‘we’ve never seen variety before’. So people really like what we’re doing and they find Canada an easy country to work with.

There’s an opportunity here. (Environment and Climate Change) minister (Catherine) McKenna was talking recently about whether the US pulling out of the Paris accord was an opportunity for Canada. I think it is in terms of the environmental research and energy research. If the US is going to be abandoning a sector or not supporting it as much as they were, then there’s an opportunity for us.

R$: With regard to the CFI’s 40-40-20 formula, you said the 40% typically paid for by the provinces could be made by other countries or foreign entities. Have you been pitching this idea and what would be required?

GP: Sometimes it’s easier for us to invest internationally than it is even in Canada. About 8% of our investments are international on an ongoing basis and I would argue that this is going to potentially increase, particularly when we cannot build it here. So in a situation where we would be contributing a piece of equipment and we don’t need the provincial governments to match that piece of equipment, we can use the funds potentially of the European community, get more from the US, etc.

R$: Some research leaders have been a little bit insular and are intimidated by working with research managers, politicians and bureaucrats. Did you enjoy working in this environment?

GP: Coming from the university environment, the new thing for me was working more closely with the political side and the government side. It’s a great environment because they’re all there for the same cause – to enhance Canada’s contribution to knowledge and creation, and the quality of life of individuals through research.

The challenge that we all have - and that’s why the job you have is so critically important – is to communicate the value of research and communicate the outcomes. You go to a politician for money but in the same afternoon there are probably 20 other people going to that same person and looking for more money for causes that are equally good. Our collective challenge is to convince government on the importance of the investments in research – it’s the front end for everything.

And there are the challenges of not doing it. Look at the cuts potentially in the US for 2018. The Association of American Universities has done a full analysis of the recommendations for 2018 – 23% cut to NIH, 11-12% cut to NSF. The impact is not going to be felt next year or the year after. It will be felt in five years, 10 years from now … It doesn’t stay flat, it starts going down. You lose your key people and then when you start investing again you’re not starting at the point where you left off. You’re starting at a point which is way below.

When I first came to the Univ of Ottawa (as dean of engineering) from McMaster in 1993, I started by cutting 25% of the faculty budget on day one (in response to the federal program review). And everybody had a salary roll-back of 3%. I had a parade of faculty members saying, ‘I’m going to Penn State, I’m going to Arizona State Univ, I’m going to CalTech, etc’. We lost a huge number.

R$: But the federal government did start to reinvest once they balanced the Budget four years later.

GP: Then it takes a longer time. One of the questions you raised right at the beginning was about the state of the research and research support environment in Canada. In many ways it is potentially very promising especially with the recommendations coming from the Naylor report. The government essentially mandated this report and they’re going to have to act on it, if not in its totality then the major elements. The panel was made up of well-respected individuals that the government chose in order to tell them the truth about the system. Our advice to the Naylor report was, the system is not broken; it just needs a little bit of propping up and of support. There’s a lot of uncertainty but hopefully they’ll be able to address most of the recommendations.

Editor’s note: Questions and answers have been condensed and edited for clarity.

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