The Council of Canadian Academies recently released the report Powering Discovery, which was commissioned by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). This was one of the steps taken by the council to gather information as part of its current strategic planning. This is a serviceable but, by design, unambitious report, generally speaking; it is more interesting for what it tells us about Canadian science policy than for the conclusion it reaches.
Meant neither as an evaluation of NSERC’s policies and practices nor as a source of actionable recommendations, the report provides a competent review of the literature and pinpoints trends in the research funding landscape. It starts by setting a broad global context by going over shifting national investments in R&D across OECD countries, considers the roles of research funding agencies as sponsors and also as norm-setters, and more tentatively, appraises responses to the pandemic among funders.
The report then organizes its discussion of trends and funding instruments according to three main topics: challenges in supporting researchers; the conundrum of supporting multi-/interdisciplinary research and high-risk/high-reward research; and what might be rephrased as “how funding agencies can get more bang for their buck.”
In each of these sections, the report goes over well-known territory. As research agencies face growing demands on their constrained budgets, how can they ensure that early career scientists have realistic odds of accessing research funding? Here, the report reviews alternatives for accomplishing that, as well as supporting Indigenous research and researchers, and promoting equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in the research community.
Next, the report discusses mechanisms for supporting multi-/interdisciplinary research and high-risk/high-reward research – and calls for more of it.In fact, the report states, a year hardly goes by since at least the 1970s without the release of some policy document extolling some version of boundary-spanning and ground-breaking research.
The “bang for the buck” chapter of the report is the less thematically coherent bringing together questions about how to improve efficiency and reduce bureaucracy within funding agencies, how to enhance research access and its impact in society and how to improve the evaluation of agency funding practices. The thread here is performance assessment and accountability, another familiar movement influencing the operation of research funding bodies around the world.
All of these themes are then revisited in the report from the perspective of whether specific practices are supported by evidence. Next, it provides a review of contextual features of the Canadian funding system. When pointing to systemic challenges that Canada faces, the report opts to reiterate well-known issues about which there is already ample agreement. For instance, it muses at how “limited opportunities for advancement, and unequal access to education, contribute to equity, diversity, and inclusion challenges in Canadian research”; it asserts that “more can be done to improve support for Indigenous research and researchers, including improving the recognition and funding of Indigenous higher education institutions”; and it commands that “NSERC and other funders can continue to build on Canada’s role as a destination for international students and an active participant in international research networks.” As it was not tasked with offering recommendations, the report’s conclusions are understandably generic and understated.
We might look at this report and be pleased at how Canadian science funding bodies value evidence and expert advice. NSERC’s effort to plan for the next decade, to be completed by the spring of next year, also deserves credit.
On the other hand, we might also wonder why the report was commissioned in such a way as to only cover safe terrain. We read about thoroughly documented issues whose existence no one contests, and policy ideas that face no opposition. The panel’s mandate did not open any flanks to actual or implicit criticism of the funding architecture that we now have in Canada with NSERC at its core, along with the other federal councils. In fact, each of the major themes raised in the report echoes some programmatic priority that NSERC already espouses.
This begs some questions: Isn’t the material covered in the report the topic of conversations among the fine personnel that serve at the council? Isn’t this the stuff that gets brought up in management meetings about program design and evaluation (with questions like, “How is this done elsewhere, and how do we know it works?” and “How else might we accomplish the same goal?”)? Is it possible to operate an agency of the scale and importance of NSERC in a vacuum of understanding of how things are done elsewhere, and ignore whether practices espoused are backed up by evidence? One might hope that yes, these informed conversations happen and no, these conversations are not entirely solipsistic. In which case, the report mostly plays a public relations function of conferring authority to common knowledge within the council. And that might actually be preferable to the alternative.