Over the past month or so we have witnessed a quick response from Canadian funding agencies, universities, and researchers to the COVID-19 pandemic. New funding schemes have been set up by sponsors and universities, research labs have shifted directions to address pressing needs, experts have engaged nationally to exchange and disseminate information, and academics have actively communicated with the public through various means. These are signs of a functional and responsive research system.
This system may be heading into meaningful strain in the next several years. That will in large part hinge on which consensus prevails among political leaders regarding national research budgets. Will research expenditures be framed as spending that needs to be cut (as part of the problem of reigning in public debt)? Or will they be construed as one among many investments needed to move us closer to economic recovery?
In the next few years, the pain of controlling deficits and reducing debt may be spread across a number of sectors and policy files. All the while, governments will still need to take vigorous steps to protect the most vulnerable in society, who will likely suffer the most in the economic contraction we expect in the near future. Other spending will therefore be secondary to maintaining effective health care, rebooting business activity, and addressing unemployment.
In this scenario, the case for treating research as a national investment needs to go much beyond the usual promise of innovation. The idea that governments need to fund science because it lays the foundation for technological advances has been overused and simplified for a long time. As everyone eagerly waits for a COVID-19 vaccine, it is tempting for academic leaders and the scientific community to default to this narrative: “look at how much good we can bring!”
As much as the kind of just-in-time response we are witnessing in the research community around new therapies and medical devices to cope with the epidemic is encouraging, it is not the reality of how academic research at large operates. Nor does it represent a realistic model to portray the importance of research investments to society.
Science is not a tactical response unit. Academic research is fundamentally long-term, and its power comes from the cumulative production of knowledge coupled to the advanced training it provides to students and postdocs. Occasional academic inventions result in valuable innovations, but incremental advances in our understanding of natural and social phenomena, tied to opportunities for students to acquire skills and experience, are the most immediate outcomes. Research is fundamentally a learning process.
Supporting the development of ‘highly qualified personnel’, in the parlance of Ottawa’s science agencies and policy bodies, could therefore be central to an understanding of research expenditures as an investment in the next budgets. That would not only be timely from a policy perspective, but it would be consistent with one of the time-honoured priorities of federal research councils.
We should be expecting more people to pursue graduate degrees in the coming years, whether by moving straight on from an undergraduate program, by returning to school to improve their qualifications, or as an alternative to unemployment. These students would benefit from an academic environment where research is adequately supported, expanding the range of work and learning opportunities available to them.
Tying the science policy debate to our likely expansion in graduate studies would seem to be critical in the near future. That goes beyond the important role federal research councils play in providing scholarships to students, which undoubtedly contributes to the ability of many to complete their degrees. It relates to the academic environment they will experience in university departments, and the level and quality of research activity they will be exposed to.