1. Restoring TriCouncil: B
The Good: Budget 2017—with nothing for the granting councils—was hard for Canadian researchers. We were still on our honeymoon with a new government that had told us everything we wanted to hear about how they valued science and recognized the dire condition our science funding system is in. Budget 2018 will increase the operating budget of the Tricouncil by $925M, though it will take five years to get there. This is a real dollar increase of 14%.
The Bad: It is not enough. It falls short of the recommendation of the Fundamental Science Review, which was considered by many to be a near-minimum, stabilizing investment. The Fundamental Science Review (page 35) identified an overall decrease of 35% in “resources available per active researcher to do investigator-led research.” We have heard from this government that Canadian science suffered a decade of neglect, and we agree. The TriCouncil increases described here can safely be called "no longer neglected" but they cannot be called a growth investment. Yet this government wants growth, as indicated by large investments in recruitment and infrastructure. We hope that this budget is a start to backfilling the hole the granting council programs have been in.
2. Open, unfettered programs: B-
The Good: 28.6% of the funds in section 2.1 are allocated to the first line item, “Granting Councils.” Another 9.2% are allocated to, “Granting Councils: New Tri-Council Fund,” and “Granting Councils: Increasing Diversity in Science.” The extent to which these latter two address shortfalls in open funding remains to be seen as details of implementation emerge, but there is potential for them to do so. The New Tri-Council Fund may help address the difficulties identified in the Fundamental Science Review around funding interdisciplinary research, particularly when disciplines cover more than one agency. We hope this new fund will reproduce the strengths of existing open programs. Open programs have few restrictions on field or investigator factors, use existing, rigorous processes to review proposals and administer funds, and are arguably the most efficient means of procuring research.
The Bad: Two of the main weaknesses of the funding system identified in the Fundamental Science Review were 1) an imbalance in which strategic funds were too large a proportion of federal science funding, and 2) a proliferation of niche mechanisms at the expense of core operating grant programs. About a quarter of the funds in section 2.1 are allocated to targeted programs. This approaches the same proportion as the potentially open operating funds above. The Fundamental Science Review recommended a significant movement back toward the 70:30 balance of open to targeted operating funds that existed in the 2000s. The programs listed in section 2.1 are undoubtedly good programs, but as details emerge of how these funds are allocated, the potential ratio between unfettered and fettered funds remains a concern.
3. Operating, salary, infrastructure, and indirects: C
The Good: Funding research is how the federal government procures knowledge and technical expertise, trains skilled workers for advanced industries, and addresses short-, medium-, and long-term societal needs on behalf of taxpayers. It is good that this government recognizes the real costs of research. There is little point in hiring and funding scientists who do cutting-edge research if our universities can't provide the buildings, facilities, and overhead required to support these efforts. This budget addresses some issues with the unpredictability of infrastructure funding.
The Bad: There is money in this budget for new CRCs (people) and an emphasis on infrastructure growth. These are necessary, but were never the major problem, as made clear well before and within the Fundamental Science Review. The most urgent problem is that operating funds have not kept pace and are insufficient for the people and infrastructure we have. This budget continues to get the balance wrong, in the same way the previous government’s budgets did. It maintains a low indirect cost rate to institutions against the strong recommendations of the Fundamental Science Review.
4. Equity, diversity, and inclusion: A
The Good: Canada seems to be moving toward a US Title IX-type requirement that institutions receiving federal funds have adequate policies for dealing with gender discrimination and sexual harassment. The government is incentivizing the implementation of Athena SWAN, an equity program that originated in the UK, and better data collection at research institutions.
The Bad: Giving funds to institutions to address their equity problems is good, but does not directly address the biases some researchers fact in obtaining research support. The government "expects" granting councils to target new CRCs to early-career researchers (ECRs). CRCs are salary awards. Early-career scientists, just like everyone else, need operating funds to conduct research. It is worth noting that in 2015, over half of the scientists holding a CIHR-funded Tier 2 Canada Research Chair lacked CIHR operating funds. Neither the expansion of this program nor its suggested targeting toward ECRs will address the research funding concerns faced by ECRs. The most equitable and fair way to support ECRs (who are also the most diverse pool of scientists) is to have robust open granting programs. These programs are where early-career researchers thrive, and this is where gender disparities in funding outcomes are lowest. (We lack data about any other disparities.)
5. Sustainability: C
The Good: Multi-year commitment to permanently increased base budgets for granting councils.
The Bad: The mismatch between growth in people and infrastructure relative to open operating funds, unaddressed in this budget, will continue to impede Canadian research. There is little in this budget addressing the carefully articulated and critical "researcher lifecycle" issues raised in the Fundamental Science Review. Without a clear signal that Canada's research ecosystem will have the long-term capacity to provide fair, competitive opportunities for researchers at all career stages to obtain operating funds, sustainability remains a weakness.
6. Honesty: A-
The Good: The budget is largely transparent in terms of science policy.
The Bad: This was referred to this as "the single largest investment in investigator-led fundamental research in Canadian history." This is not a single investment, it goes into effect and ramps up over five years. Annualized, the investment is better characterized as moderate compared to previous budgets. In the early 2000s, the granting councils had multiple larger annual increases to their base budgets than this budget proposes.
Overall Grade: B
We approached this grading exercise from the reference point that full implementation of the Fundamental Science Review would result in an A. This budget is a good start, thus earning a B. It is responsive to the Fundamental Science Review and takes steps toward the Minister of Science's laudable and essential goal of improving equity in academic research. However, "responsive to" is only a start, and Budget 2018 falls short on important parts of the Naylor Report: the scale of the reinvestment in open operating supporting, correcting the strategic vs. discovery imbalance that has developed over the past decade, and improving the balance among operating, infrastructure, and salary support. These imbalances remain, with moderate investments made across the board.
Researchers need to make a stronger case for how essential open programs are to the government's goals of a world-class, equitable research enterprise that trains and supports the next generation of researchers, generates new knowledge, puts Canada back on track to compete internationally in research, and solves problems for Canadians and people around the world.