Why the proposed capstone federal research funding organization shouldn’t become a “tombstone”

Paul Dufour
May 22, 2024

Paul Dufour is Principal of PaulicyWorks and Senior Fellow with the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa.

“Capstone” – used to finish a monument or building.

You probably have read about the various science and research investments outlined in the recent federal Budget 2024. By and large, several of the proposed investments have been well received, especially those linked to talent and new research grants funding.

But at least one set of elements identified in the budget seems to be deliberately unclear (not unusual). The budget authors have announced the creation of a new capstone research funding organization. As well, an advisory Council on Science and Innovation to guide research priorities will be set up which will look into establishing a national science and innovation strategy.

Sounds good? Perhaps.

Sounds undefined? Yes.

Sounds new? No.

Indeed, the capstone concept is essentially responding to a recommendation from the thoughtful report by the Advisory Panel on the Federal Research Support System, chaired by Université de Montréal’s Frédéric Bouchard. It argued for a new governance mechanism – a Canadian Knowledge and Science Foundation – to foster collaboration across the system in support of urgent, multi- and interdisciplinary, mission-driven research to help address pressing social, technological, economic and health challenges.

The proposed foundation would also assist the talent continuum through greater coordination of programming building on the mandate of the Canada Research Coordinating Council, which would be discontinued, and take on the mission-driven aspect of research funding.

That recommendation has a longer history having been mooted in part with the extensive 2017 Naylor advisory panel on Canada’s Fundamental Science Review, which in turn was inspired by the efforts of the Special Senate Committee on Science Policy chaired by Senator Maurice Lamontagne in the late 1960s-early 1970s when national debates were underway on how to structure the future of research councils.

Lamontagne’s report had proposed the creation of a Canadian Research Board to support basic research in universities and similar institutions in the physical sciences, the life sciences and the social sciences and humanities.

But going back to the Naylor report, the panel also recommended the establishment of a formal coordinating board for the three granting councils to be chaired by the Chief Science Advisor as well as an advisory council called NACRI (National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation).

The more recent Bouchard report also called for something along the same lines arguing that: “following the discontinuation of the Science, Technology and Innovation Council and the delay in launching the Council on Science and Innovation (CSI), Canada has a worrisome vulnerability in independent strategic advice capacity.”

Actually, candidate applications to the CSI were launched in late 2018 and one can still access the form here at a federal government webpage.

At the time, both the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development and the Minister of Science and Sport (since abolished) outlined the mandate of the then-CSI. It would:

  • provide evidence-based analysis and policy advice to the Ministers on complex issues that require background research and consultations/engagement with experts, stakeholders and/or civil society.
  • provide a “sounding board” for the Ministers on short-term and/or urgent issues.
  • publicly report on science and innovation issues of importance to the Government of Canada and to Canadian citizens.

This may still be adopted as the mandate for a new CSI, which could be chaired by the Prime Minister.

 That said, there is no need here to go into the litany of past experiments for science and innovation advisory councils in this country (see the Naylor report’s timeline chart on this), but suffice to say there have been a good number – some with impact, others less so.

A more interesting aspect of the budget line for a CSI (frankly, the word ‘Knowledge’ should be included in the title) is the notion that it would assist in framing a national science and technology policy. Note that there is no mention of the provincial or territorial governments and their role in helping shape such a policy. It’s not like the federal ambit has all of the levers over research, technology and innovation.

Other levels of government have their own strategies, science and innovation councils, advisors, and funding regimes, not to mention various funding and policy streams that can shape K-12 and higher education.

Again, Canada has seen aborted attempts to create such science, technology and innovation policies but they tend to emerge as federal strategies – the last being in 2014 under the Stephen Harper regime.

In one notable attempt to have a pan-Canadian approach, a 1987 National Science and Technology Policy was signed by all levels of government in Vancouver. (See the development of this in the 1988 Yves Gingras-Paul Dufour article, “Development of Canadian science and technology policy,” published in Science and Public Policy).

This initiative, with its six overarching principles, was supported by a federal strategy labeled InnovAction. It was followed with a First Ministers conference on Canada’s research and development effort in Toronto, and further buttressed with the support from annual meetings of a National Forum of Science and Technology Advisory Councils, along with an action plan led by a Federal-Provincial-Territorial Council of Science and Technology Ministers.

Perhaps these past experiments can be reimagined today for the new capstone to be placed at the research foundation the country has been building, including a fully functioning CS(K)I and effective pan-Canadian leadership in delivering a truly national strategy.

One would hate to see yet another tombstone to our STIK (science, technology, innovation, knowledge) body politic.

This op-ed was originally published on the Canadian Science Policy Centre’s Editorial Page.


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