Urgent need to reinvest in research and innovation: Q&A with Alison Evans, Research Canada

Mark Lowey
February 28, 2024

Alison Evans (photo at right) became president and CEO of Research Canada in October 2023. She has more than 25 years of experience as a strategic communications, marketing, fundraising and public affairs executive in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. Evans was the recent vice-president of public engagement at CARE Canada, and prior to this held many leadership positions in Canada’s high tech, postsecondary education, health care, tourism and agricultural sectors. She was vice-president, members and public relations, at Universities Canada. Evans talked with Mark Lowey, Research Money’s managing editor, about Research Canada’s activities, goals and vision, the urgent need for the federal government to reinvest in research and innovation, and what Research Canada will be looking for in Budget 2024.

R$: Can you briefly describe the purpose and goals of Research Canada and who belongs to and/or supports the organization?

AE: Research Canada is a national, member-based organization. It’s a broad alliance of a variety of organizations in the health research and innovation ecosystem. By working together as Research Canada, we aim to improve the health and prosperity of all Canadians. That means we champion Canada as a global leader in health research and innovation. We do this through a few different areas of activity. The primary ones would be that we are trying to influence public policy and the funding environment, to reflect the needs of an integrated health research and innovation ecosystem that can address immediate and long-term challenges.

For example, we have this flagship area of programming called Our Parliamentary Health Research Caucus. It’s an all-party caucus. We have a wonderful Chair, MP [for Markham-Stouffville] and also doctor Helena Jaczek. Through the Parliamentary Health Research Caucus, we regularly bring Canadian health researchers and experts right in front of Parliamentarians, policy-makers and decision-makers. We do this on really important topics.

Right now, the federal government seems very focused on the housing crisis. That might seem like a siloed issue that’s being tackled by trying to build more houses and trying to limit the number of international students that come into Canada. But we would aim to remind Parliamentarians of the social determinants of health and the broader impact that a housing shortage is having on Canadians’ health – their mental health, on exacerbating social inequities – and reminding them how much Canadians want to be living in healthy, vibrant communities.

We work with the media and the public to make sure that they understand the need for a healthy research and innovation ecosystem. Right now, a lot of that has to do with making sure people don’t see health care over here, and health research and innovation over here. We have a duty at Research Canada to show the linkages. Canadians might feel that it’s the health care system that’s in crisis: we don’t have enough doctors and nurses, we’re not getting high-quality care and we’re having accessibility issues. What we don’t want is the government to shortsightedly only focus on mitigation measures at the expense of the longer-term investments in research and innovation, which not only actually help how care is delivered, but a health research and innovation ecosystem helps us with things much broader than health.

Another area of our activity is to cultivate a diverse membership and alliance, by having a variety of organizations all under our umbrella. That means including all types of research – not just academic research at universities. It also means clinical research, translational research, it means knowledge mobilization that takes things we learned and puts them into care. These things are really interrelated.

In Canada, because we have such a vibrant university system, with more R&D happening in its universities than some of our G7 comparators, I think we forget that we also need a very well-supported clinical research ecosystem. For example, there are a number of institutions in Canada that are not universities, that may not even be affiliated with a university, who are conducting very important research. And they don’t have access to the same Tri-Council funding that the universities do. Also, health charities are doing quite a lot of research and that’s coming from philanthropy – it’s donor-funded research. So we at Research Canada look at all of those pillars.

Our members include universities, colleges, private companies – small ones and right up to the Johnston & Johnstons of the world – health charities, foundations, research institutes, hospitals and patient groups. We work really closely with national partners like Universities Canada, the U15 [group of Canadian research universities] and other health-related organizations, but also some of the broader organizations that are all advocating for a strong research and innovation ecosystem – whether that’s in the health domain, which is our primary focus, or across all disciplines.

R$: Research Canada earlier this month convened stakeholders across the health research and innovation ecosystem to align advocacy efforts and effectively strategize for the future. What was the main message coming out of this meeting?

AE: This was an incredible event and I’m so glad it happened early in my tenure. I was extremely impressed by the level of participation and the seniority and breadth of presenters. We had a packed room of well over 100 very senior stakeholders. For example, from the Minister’s Office to Parliamentarians – not just the health players – we had literally every granting agency in the room: Genome Canada, NSERC, SSHRC, health organizations, health companies, health charities and the like.

What I think the main message is, is that the community feels the investments [in research and innovation] are overdue. The community has been waiting for a significant response to the Bouchard report. (The March 2023 report by the federal government’s Advisory Panel on the Federal Research Support System). We think that status quo is not acceptable and that we’d like to see this rectified.

This community is committed more than ever to do everything they can collectively to see Canada rectify the status quo. I was hearing student groups wanting to work hand-in-hand with faculty groups wanting to work hand-in-hand with private companies wanting to help their charity partners do better – people very committed to patients and Canadians in general. As much as there is real worry about Canada and the lack of investments and us falling behind, there was energy, optimism, willingness, openness and candor at a level that I think indicates a real energy in the community. It’s desperately needed because we have a real shot right now with Budget 2024 to finally get something in response to the Bouchard report’s recommendations. But then we have a federal election. We probably have a change in government and/or years of minority governments. So we have to grow and maintain energy because this is a long haul.

We need to be focused, we need to have a long-term, multi-year advocacy agenda that tries to help ensure that we learned the lessons that we were taught during the pandemic. We saw how critical health researchers are to our well-being. People were lining up outside pharmacies. They were grateful for the arrival of vaccines. We adopted masks, we learned all of these things and all of that was aided by speed and collaboration that hadn’t always been hallmarks of the research enterprise. Now here we are in 2024, coming up on the four-year anniversary of when we thought we were having a two-week break from the world as we knew it, and we’re still looking at health research as a funding demand and a cost centre, rather than something that we need to invest in.

R$: What is the current state of federal funding for science and research, and what are the risks if the government doesn’t increase this support?

AE: If you recall, 2018 was quite a banner year for federal investments, with record-level investments that year. And I think the government has sort of been riding that in the years that have gone by since, and of course the pandemic probably made it such that they had no choice but to focus in other areas. But now it feels like it’s time to come back [with investments].

 Some of the risks are that with a research funding landscape that’s flatlined, our competitive edge is at risk, and other countries are investing heavily to advance their economies and attract top talent from around the world. In 2021, Canada invested just 1.7 per cent of GDP on research and development. The U.S. would be at 3.5 per cent. We’re behind Japan, Germany, U.K., Australia, and we’re the only nation in the G7 where R&D spending as a percentage of GDP has been shrinking over the past two decades. To me this means in a rapidly changing world investing is more crucial than ever. It’s what we need to be an economic leader, it’s how we would attract and retain our talent. Without that talent, we can’t drive innovation to address the challenges that we face.

 At the conference that we held on February 8, we had a fantastic speaker, a young man named Thomas Bailey who is a PhD student. His organization (Ottawa Science Policy Network) has done some great research on brain drain – something I thought we left in the 1990s and 2000s, but here it is again. Their study of hundreds and hundreds of graduate students and post-docs show that a full two-thirds of them intend to leave Canada, citing better jobs and better salaries as the two top reasons. For anyone who says that they’re staying in Canada, they cite health care system and family and friends as why they’re staying – not jobs, not salaries.

We need great investigators, we need investigator-led research that’s funded, because when they’re funded they can bring the students into their midst, the learning environment is more enriched. Our companies [in Canada] are just clamouring for the kinds of skilled workers that they need, and these are the people who will drive innovation in our economy, including outside of academia. Our higher education system is fantastic. But we are not at the top of our game anymore. We are 28th in the OECD for advanced degree attainment. The talent gap is real and it’s not just a number, it represents missed opportunities for our nation’s growth in industries that are eagerly seeking these skilled employees.

In addition to the advocacy that Research Canada does itself, we work in collaboration with many national partners. Right now, we’re working under the banner of the Coalition for Research. We are very active right now in the lead-up to Budget 2024, promoting a lot of these gaps [in funding] and the urgency with which we hope the government will act.

R$: What would Research Canada like to see in terms of federal funding for science and research in the upcoming budget?

AE: As per the recommendations of the Bouchard report, we would like to see a 10-per-cent increase per year for five years to the core granting budgets of the Tri-agencies. But also a 50-per-cent increase to the value of the federally funded scholarships and post-doc fellowships, and a doubling of the number of awards. And to keep all of this in line with inflation going forward. This would be net new spending, not existing commitments. If you haven’t seen the trend lines, which are very stark, this kind of reinvestment is what would bring us at least back into line and put us on a path to, at a minimum, keeping some sort of annual pace with inflation and other things.

Canada has one of the best democracies in the world. I do think that people want to have a reason to stay here. Particularly when we think of how politics are going in the U.S. We can’t just cross our fingers and hope that terrible U.S. politics is what keeps our best and brightest in Canada. We need to have sound, long-term, strategic policies. In many ways what I’d like to see overall is Canada return to having some ambition, not just getting by, not just doing the bare minimum, but to be ambitious and to see research and innovation as the thing through which we reassert our leadership in the world. 

R$: You became president and CEO of Research Canada in mid-October last year. How have your first four months on the job been? Have there been any surprises?

AE: It’s been a homecoming in many ways, because I have spent quite a considerable proportion of my career promoting the value of higher education, promoting the value of research, communicating the importance of research, communicating research outcomes. While in the past I had done that across all disciplines, I now get to focus on the health domain, which is really interesting because of the jurisdictional realities. Health care is provincial, and while we think we have a single health care system we actually have 13 or 14 [different systems], however you want to divide the country up. So how a national approach to research and innovation connects down and into care and care in different parts of Canada is actually a fascinating policy domain to work in. I feel very fortunate to be in a milieu that has that kind of complexity, as well as for me going well beyond the academic contributions to the research endeavour to considering what is coming out of our civil society organizations, out of our companies. This is of tremendous value to me through this position to work with a broader membership and touch all the folks that are contributing to a vibrant health research and innovation ecosystem.

What I’m surprised about is the amount of research that’s being done outside of academic centres, that I don’t think Canadians or policy-makers understand. I recently toured UHN (University Health Network) in Toronto, which is an umbrella of several of the hospitals. The amount of research being done there. that I think the average Canadian doesn’t understand. is mind-boggling and deserves more attention. I think that those folks who are doing clinical research, translational research, research that can save lives if it is streamlined and well-resourced, if there is less bureaucratic red tape, I think there’s a huge opportunity to shine a brighter light on that part of the ecosystem. I think people would be wowed by what Canada is doing and could do if we resourced it better.

R$: Research Canada has released its Vision 2025 document, “Fulfilling the Promise of Collaborative Advocacy Leadership.” What are the main takeaways from this document?

AE: What I like that’s outlined in the document is this notion of collaborative advocacy. I think this is hugely important. It is what sets Research Canada apart and has for some time, and that’s why we do have a broad membership. What I love about the environment right now is everyone seems more willing to collaborate. When I used to work specifically for the universities, I used to say that they were in co-opetition with each other – kind of cooperating but kind of competing. Nowadays I feel that everyone understand that the larger a group of constituents we can be, the better.

The other thing that strikes me that Canada either is or should be or will be contemplating is the whole mechanism through which we fund research. The Bouchard report, [examined] the Tri-Councils themselves and are they collaborating, are they supporting the modern research enterprise the way they should be, do they truly foster interdisciplinarity. Those questions still need to be answered. It’s hard to answer right now, because it’s not a politically easy time to wrestle with those things. Who would want to incentivize transformative change right now, this close to an election?

It’s well-articulated in our strategic plan – and certainly I see it being a feature of the next strategic plan as well – is really trying to help the research and innovation community understand that we have to be a part of helping to co-create and design the future that we want. We can’t just be unhappy with the status quo and ask for more money in the same ways that we have in the past. We truly have to show a willingness as a community to come along and help to design that new future. So if we’re going to continue to be in an economically constrained environment, [this means] not only talking about what we could do if we had more money, but talking about how we will do better with the money that we have. Those are the big picture things that are part of our strategic thinking going forward. How do we help more people – Canadians, policy-makers, decision-makers, influencers – understand how integrated our ability to have quality, accessible health care is with having a vibrant and thriving health research and innovation ecosystem.

NOTE: This interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity.


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