Time is ripe for boosting support for research and research infrastructure says departing CFI president

Mark Henderson
June 14, 2017

R$ talks to Dr Gilles Patry

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 rise 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 as well a key driver in efforts to encourage cross-sectoral collaboration nationally and internationally.

RE$EARCH MONEY recently sat down with Patry as he prepares to leave the CFI July 31st to discuss the evolving role of the CFI and the current state of science, research and innovation in Canada. The federal ecosystem is currently in the midst of a major transformation, prompted by the government’s new Innovation & Skills Plan, a major report by the Advisory Panel for the Review of Federal Support for Fundamental Science head by Dr David Naylor, the imminent appointment of a chief science advisor and a simplified support structure for innovators (Innovation Canada).

Arriving in 2010 in the midst of the Conservative government's term of office, Patry has worked to establish CFI as a major component of federal support for research, touting research infrastructure as a key ingredient in an ecosystem for leveraging knowledge and skills into jobs, company growth and international linkages.

“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 (it) acts as a magnet for collaboration both nationally and internationally,” says Patry. “In 2010, I remember my meetings with Industry Canada at the time. 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 what people are saying. Research infrastructure is a given. It’s the fourth pillar. Along with NSERC, SSHRC and CIHR, you’ve got CFI without questioning.”

In many ways, CFI enhanced its value to government and the research community by crafting policies that resulted in innovative new programs, institutional alignment around core research thrusts, unwavering support for the granting councils and growing interaction between Canadian and international researchers seeking access to each other’s science facilities. CFI also increased its role in big science with its Major Science Initiatives fund — one of its roles recognized in the Naylor report and tagged for increased funding.

Patry says the Naylor report represents an important opportunity for Canada to strengthen and align its research and innovation activities. While he has reservations about its views on changing CFI’s governance structure, he’s supportive of its recommendations to provide predictable funding with increased support for young researchers, big science and operational support — the latter a longstanding complaint by the university community (see chart).

Naylor Recommendations for Annual, Predictable CFI Funding

($ millions)

Core capital funding 300
Innovation Operating Fund (30%) 90
Major Science Initiatives (MSI) Fund 80
John R Evans Leaders Fund augmentation 30
Boost MSI project contribution from 40% to 60% 35
Total 535

The CFI made a series of eight recommendations to the Naylor-led panel including a Research Facilities Performance Fund. Patry says he’s more than willing to take that recommendation off the table if the government embraces  Naylor’s advice to boost the support for the Research Support Fund (indirect costs of research) from its current average of 21% to the long-standing goal of 40%, at a cost of $487 million over four years.

“One of the things we should be doing and the community should be doing is supporting the Naylor report in its entirety … Predictability is key and they’ve recognized that,” says Patry. “The challenge is obviously convincing government. There are many pressures on government funding (but) we have a prime minister that is extremely supportive of science and the minister of Finance knows that if they’re going to be investing in creating jobs that they need the research to feed them.”

“We need to capitalize on what we have to offer in terms of political stability, quality of education, a fantastic banking system, the fact that Canada is a very respected country around the world. In this period of isolationism there’s an opportunity for Canada to be the one that leads,” says Patry. “People (from other countries) 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 (and) they’re saying we’ve never seen this before … So people really like what we’re doing and find Canada an easy country to work with.”

With Canada’s role in the world gaining visibility, many in the research community see that increased support for research and associated infrastructure could offer a once-in-a-generation opportunity to become recognized for its brain power as well as its endowment of natural resources. That sentiment was on full display earlier this month in Toronto as more than 200 scientists gathered to hear the case for government adoption of the Naylor recommendations totalling $1.3 billion over four years.

That opportunity is even larger when the chaotic US environment is included. While US researchers appear to have dodged major cuts for 2017, the administration’s recommendations for 2018 would, according to the Association of American Universities “effectively cripple our nation’s scientific efforts, undermining our economic growth, public health, and national security”. The Liberal government is already taking action to exploit the uncertainty south of the border, introducing a fast-tracking system for bringing in highly skilled personnel with a two-week turnaround on applications.

Patry says governments must fully understand the long-term implications of cutting research funding, and that includes Canada which suffered under the Harper administration and in the early 1990s when then Finance minister Paul Martin took the axe to research funding as part of a whole-of-government expenditure reduction to balance the books.

“We have to collectively convince government on the importance of the investments in research. It’s the front end of everything,” he says. “I brought Paul Martin in a couple of years ago to talk to staff (and he) was under the impression that he could cut (research support) for a few years … and start reinvesting at the point where we left off. He said that wasn’t the case. … You can start where you left off but a lot of your assets over time will just leave.”



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