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Policy & Practice

The uncertain shelf life of the Fundamental Science Review

In the long run, the status of the report as a relevant source for policy debate and advocacy hinges on which party wins the October federal election.

par CRESO SÁ | 08 JUILLET 19

The report of the Fundamental Science Review panel, chaired by former University of Toronto president David Naylor, has been a touchstone in the science policy debate over the past two years. Science advocates, researchers and academic leaders have buttressed calls for greater federal investments in research on the detailed analysis of funding gaps and needs put forward in the report. Further, several other recommendations pertaining to issues such as the governance of funding agencies, the harmonization of funding schemes, and the support for different groups within the scientific community, have resonated broadly and generated robust debate.

As the take-up and implementation of the report’s recommendations have been quite uneven – the advocacy group Evidence For Democracy has produced a helpful summary – Dr. Naylor has been vocal about the need for continuing advocacy of the review’s recommendations. But, 27 months after its release, how likely is the report to continue to influence the federal government?

In the short run – meaning until the upcoming federal election – the Liberal government has given clear signs that they were happy to follow the recommendations that provide an opportunity to display a commitment to science while not really rocking the boat that much. This includes relatively cheap and easy things to do, such as launching reviews on specific issues and striking new committees, as well as the more substantive step of formalizing a regular budget for the Canada Foundation for Innovation. CFI had become the major source of research infrastructure funding for universities since the late 1990s, but still depended on periodic agreements to secure its budget. Its new formal status as the de facto fourth federal research council was a relatively easy and logical thing to do, which came to the relief of university administrators and researchers, not to speak of the foundation itself.

Where has this self-styled, pro-science government been less sanguine in responding to the review? The elephant in the room is obviously the recommendations around reinvesting in open funding for fundamental research, which has become virtually synonymous with #SupportTheReport activism. Budget 2018 was the high mark in the Liberals’ effort at reinvestment, which they widely touted as “the largest ever increase in funding for fundamental research through Canada’s granting councils.” This has barely reached half of the additional funding the review advocated, which makes for an obvious gap between aspirations and budgetary reality.

Muted reactions from the Liberal government to the review were not restricted to funding levels though. Recall that the government never issued a formal and complete response to the review. It delayed releasing the report until after the 2017 budget was announced, presumably to avoid potentially embarrassing questions about the cleavage between the report’s recommendations and that year’s slim budget for science. But thereafter, short of a thankful acknowledgement, the government did not provide a clear indication of what it agreed or disagreed with, what it intended to implement or would not even consider.

By this inaction, it becomes evident that the Liberals do not have much interest in trying to work out federal-provincial coordination issues that have affected research investments in this country. It also does not intend to open up the governance of the federal research councils to external input. Nor does it intend to limit its own ability to create boutique programs, as the last few budgets made clear.

In the long run, the status of the Fundamental Science Review as a relevant source for policy debate and advocacy after the October election hinges on which party will be in office. A re-elected Liberal government would not publicly shun reference to a review they commissioned, as ambivalent as they might be about the recommendations. A Conservative government, on the other hand, would have no reason to pay deference to the review. As a political event, the review was a Liberal initiative that served a powerful pro-science signaling function.

The Liberals may not have anticipated the kind of report they would receive, and what they would do with it, but they put it forward as this government’s brainchild.

Creso Sá
Creso Sá is the vice-dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. He is also the editor of the Canadian Journal of Higher Education.
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