by Paul Wells

At first glance, the parade of cabinet ministers on university campuses across Canada yesterday might have looked like evidence of a new era in federal support for science.

Scott Brison was on hand at Dalhousie University in Halifax, which will work with the University of Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland’s Memorial University on a multidisciplinary ocean studies project. The size of the grant from Ottawa: $94 million.

Kirsty Duncan and Bardish Chagger were in Waterloo, Ont., where the Institute for Quantum Computing picked up $76 million to create powerful new technology using quantum physics. And on it went: $78 million for flood and drought prediction at the University of Saskatchewan; $84 million for brain research at McGill; $94 million for big data at the Universite de Montreal; $75 million for clean energy at each of Alberta’s two biggest universities.

In all, 13 centres of higher learning split $900 million in grants under the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF), whose website says it was designed to help Canadian post-secondary institutions become “global research leaders.”

Specifically – and this fact was not emphasized at any of the announcements on Tuesday – it was designed in 2014 by the former Conservative government, whose finance minister at the time, the late Jim Flaherty, announced CFREF in his 2014 budget.

This tidbit should elicit a wry chuckle from anyone who’s used to hearing the Harper government
dismissed as a bunch of knuckle-dragging backwoodsmen at war with the Enlightenment. There was indeed a lot to criticize about how Harper did science, but those Liberal ministers were out there on Tuesday cashing Conservative cheques.

(Since those cheques, whether red or blue, come out of your taxes, the difference is mostly one of dramatic effect. And this sort of policy continuity, where a new government implements an earlier government’s decisions, is usually healthy, because it gives anyone who deals with government a chance to plan past the next election.)

But paternity is not the only interesting question to arise from yesterday’s announcement. That $900 million, distributed among only 13 institutions and a few dozen researchers, serves to highlight some disturbing long-term trends in Canada’s national science effort.

CFREF was created to allow big science in Canada to bulk up so it could compete against world-leading research institutions abroad. But it comes along at a moment when everyday science – the day-to-day efforts of researchers in labs across the country – has been struggling.

The Harper government held the line on most operating grants to researchers, so fewer and fewer
research applications have been receiving funding. The Canadian Institutes for Health Research, the main federal government vehicle for funding medical research, has seen its “success rate” fall to 13 per cent, and it will probably fall further.

That leaves a lot of frustrated and disillusioned scientists, many of them the younger early-career researchers who are entering precisely the period in their careers when most scientists do their most surprising and productive work. Tony Pawson, the British-born cell biologist who died in Toronto in 2013, opened up a whole new field of lucrative and life-saving anti-cancer therapies with research that didn’t cost much, showed little obvious promise and began when he was 21.

Michael Hendricks, a McGill University biologist, pointed out yesterday that with $700 million – less than the amount that was spent yesterday – Ottawa could fund “1,000 Canadian research labs that are already equipped and ready to go but are starved for operating funds.”

Does it make more sense to bet big on 13 research institutes or to bet long on 1,000 quiet explorers?

Maybe you should do a bit of both. It’s not as though the Trudeau government is ignoring the question: a federal review of science funding is underway, led by former University of Toronto president David Naylor, with a mandate to report by the end of the year.

Naylor is a pit bull, and his panel’s website suggests it’s considering precisely the sorts of questions I’ve raised here. But its composition is weighted toward administrators over early-and mid-career researchers, and decisions are being made even as it does its work. It will do little good to decide, after $900 million has been spent, that other choices might have been wiser.

Strong day-to-day advice might help while the expert panels do their consulting. But 10 months after the government was sworn in, Trudeau and his science minister have not appointed a senior federal science adviser, something they promised to do in the last election.

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer. His column appears Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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