12 Thoughts About the Naylor Report

It’s been two weeks since the Naylor report on fundamental science was released – two weeks during which I’ve composed and re-composed this post in my mind several times. I’ve got so many thoughts about the report (the good, the bad, the ugly) that I could fill 12 thoughts many times over (and maybe I will). But today I’m going to try to stay out of the weeds and provide some high-level impressions – we can do some weed-diving about specific recommendations in the days and weeks ahead.

Here are 12 Thoughts about the Naylor Report.

1. The report is a remarkable piece of work. The merits of the recommendations aside (don’t worry, we’ll get to those), this is an important and valuable piece of scholarship that will inform science policy in Canada for a generation. Most (that’s a relative term) will read the Executive Summary and leave it at that – that would be a mistake. The first couple chapters do a very good job of providing the historical and international context for the recommendations while the appendices provide a very useful snapshot of the current system. It’s been a long time since this kind of big-picture, strategic review has taken place – you have to go back to the Lamontagne Committee’s series of reports in the early 1970s to find its equal. And while that committee took five years to produce its reports, this committee completed its task in ten months. Very impressive work by the panel and its supporting team.

2. The panel is explicit and enthusiastic in its support for fundamental research – that’s great, but we need to do better. The report dedicates a short, early chapter to making the case for “science and inquiry” – a welcome effort after a decade of government focus on application and innovation. It describes benefits to society, health, innovation and the economy, as well as pointing to our inherent human curiosity. This is well-worn ground, with the ‘positive impacts’ being described largely through examples and general statements. It’s nice, but it’s not nearly enough. We are preaching to the converted with homilies like these. We will need better/fresher/stronger narratives – and evidence – to build/expand/reinforce public (and therefore political) support for significant new spending on research. More on this below.

3. The report raises some uncomfortable truths (again) about Canada’s self-image as a ‘knowledge economy’. The report throws some cold water on the notion that we are among world leaders in knowledge and innovation. Relative to ‘peer’ countries, we don’t produce enough PhD graduates or researchers and we don’t support those we do produce well enough to compete in the global innovation game. (This isn’t exactly new ground; see here, here, here, etc).  Accordingly, we continue to slip by various metrics of scientific success – a review of which the panel finds “sobering”. While I appreciate the Panel’s understated approach, I would use much stronger language. Whatever descriptor you use, there’s no denying there’s a problem.

4. There are two big conclusions in the report. The report is 200+ pages long and includes 35 individual recommendations, but to my eye there are two big conclusions: 1) Significant investment is needed in fundamental research, and 2) The system needs significant changes in governance and coordination. We might quibble about the details behind these conclusions and we will certainly quibble about whether the recommendations present reasonable solutions, but to me the most important part of the report is the diagnosis of the problems – and if nothing else, these two messages are what the government should hear loud and clear from the report. Let’s look at them in turn.

5. First, the money. The total recommended increase in spending comes in at about $1.3 billion annually, which is not chump change. This includes varying amounts of funding for a number of initiatives, but there are two really key numbers. The first is a recommended $485 million annual increase for investigator-initiated research. This sounds like a big number – it’s a 30% increase in total tricouncil grants and a 50% increase for investigator-led research. But it’s pretty achievable – ramp up over five years and freeze growth of partnership programs and you’re only really increasing a couple points above inflation. This should be a slam-dunk for government.

The second key number is $478 million for indirect costs (“facilities and administration costs” in the parlance of the report). The report spends a lot of time justifying this increase, which is probably because it’s clear this is the harder to pitch to make. The merits of the arguments aside, the result of this recommendation would be to free up university funds currently dedicated to supporting facilities and administration, thereby increasing funds available for other university priorities. This may be a super good idea, but politically sensitive decision-makers may balk at the optics. We’ll see.

6. Second, the system (NACRI). The other major conclusion of the report is that the support system is broken and needs significant attention around governance, oversight and coordination. The major recommendation is the establishment of a new umbrella governance body (NACRI – National Advisory Committee for Research and Innovation) composed of academic leaders and innovators. NACRI would provide private advice to cabinet, public oversight for extramural science, evaluation of programs/investments, foresight on emerging trends, and more – and it would do this for both the research and innovation portfolios.

Now, call me a skeptic, but I can’t imagine NACRI gets created as described. I have a laundry list of reasons why, and if you’re willing to buy me several beers some evening I’m happy to list them all for you. Here’s one big one: NACRI would require an army of bureaucrats to deliver on the proposed mandate, and the functions listed in the report read pretty much like ISED’s current set of departmental responsibilities. There’s no way the government creates a shadow ISED with a committee of academics in charge instead of a Deputy Minister. Especially given the Budget’s announcement of Innovation Canada and what looks a lot like a departmental reevaluation and reorganization.

This is not to say that there isn’t a problem to be solved, and the government should definitely act to fix the serious governance problems in the report. But I suspect it will be easier to rebrand STIC, give it a more robust mandate that aligns with the Chief Science Advisor, and work with a revamped ISED/Innovation Canada so that the current evaluation and foresight work is more effective.

7. More about the system (CFI). The report also dedicates significant focus to the granting councils and how they function as the interface between government funding and extramural research. First, and most straightforwardly, the report suggests providing CFI with stable, ongoing funding of $300 million annually for research infrastructure (a good and obvious thing). Given that CFI currently operates as an independent not-for-profit, the quid pro quo is to bring governance in-house, aligned with the granting councils (not as clear that this is a good thing). The big question for me is what the addition of a fourth granting body does to ‘tricouncil’ as the collective noun. Quadcouncil is a terrible word, so let’s get to work on a good moniker, shall we?

8. Even more about the system (Granting Councils). The more consequential piece for the granting councils deals with governance and coordination. The report is sympathetic but conclusive that the councils have suffered from poor coordination and fragmented, ad hoc development that have led to disparities in program architecture and funding outcomes – and that better coordination and governance are essential. The report doesn’t recommend a major rethink of the system or the amalgamation of the councils à la UK. Instead, it recommends the formation of a coordinating board made up of the four agency heads, departmental officials and ‘external experts’ that will allow the councils to coordinate themselves. This is pretty much status quo, which is more than a little surprising. Everyone has recognized the need for greater coordination for a decade or more and we’re still here, so colour me skeptical again. In one of its stranger moments, even the panel seems to recognize that the recommended solution is unlikely to succeed – suggesting (aka threatening) the creation of a supervisory body if nothing changes and hinting that we should all watch the UK amalgamation to see if it actually works.  I really do hope that the tricouncil/quadcouncil takes the initiative for meaningful change to more effectively coordinate across the system.

9. Trust. But I think there’s a bigger issue that isn’t really addressed in this report: the apparent gradual erosion of the relationship between the government and the granting agencies. The last decade has increasingly seen government-sponsored research initiatives funded directly through independent institutions and organizations. There’s no reason these initiatives shouldn’t be funded/administered/coordinated/evaluated through the councils, so why weren’t they? I don’t know, and I’m not going to speculate (at least, not here), but this seems to me to be a big, unaddressed issue. How do we ensure that our government and our major science funding organizations work closely together to develop, implement and coordinate a national research strategy? How do we achieve the right balance between government setting priorities and goals and academics and institutions supporting the best science? To my mind, that’s a really important question.

10. Superpanel. Speaking of coordination, the panel’s mandate did not include reviewing federal support for applied research – a major part of the ecosystem and a big part of tricouncil budgets. Yes, the Jenkins panel sort of looked at applied research as part of its overall mandate to look at federal support for industrial R&D (not entirely the same thing), but also looked at the question in isolation from the rest of the research enterprise. Neither reviewed the NRC and its $1 billion budget, nor the many government departments that do intramural government science – though these are also being reviewed and strategies developed. Add in independent initiatives like superclusters, AI investments, provincial and other funding mechanisms and you get a deeply fragmented system. Someone really needs to think about how all these pieces fit together. The Chief Science Advisor’s mandate makes it clear she/he won’t be doing it. Sure, NACRI could do it, but in the event it doesn’t, maybe we need a panel of panels to bring all these ideas together. Or rather, in the parlance of today’s government, a superpanel.

Ok, so now what?  I’ve got two thoughts left, each of which I’ll expand on later. But they focus on what government can do and what the community can do.

11. For government. Government may reject (or rather, ignore) the specific recommendations (a not uncommon fate for expert panel reports), but it should not ignore the diagnosis. Action on funding and governance are important. Funding strains in the system are real and damaging and will generate long-term negative consequences that are hard to predict but will certainly diminish Canada’s standing as a country committed to an educated society and knowledge-based economy. But I’d argue that the first need is to address the governance issues – and more broadly, to demonstrate leadership by linking them to a compelling vision and strategy for research in Canada.

12. For the research community. This report is useful, but the real work still lies ahead. A quick policy and politics reminder for my researcher colleagues: the government is under no obligation to do anything based on this report. More than ever, the community needs to communicate the real value of research – to make the case to voting, middle-class (ahem) Canadians that investing in science and inquiry has real and important benefits to them, their families, their communities. The report focuses on the “how” to fix fundamental research, which is fine. But it will be a mistake to assume everyone is already on board with “why” we need to fix it. I understand the challenges of the current funding environment. But to an outside observer – especially given today’s zeitgeist – university professors and inquiry-driven research are not obvious targets for government attention – success rates and OECD statistics notwithstanding. Reminding everyone why researchers do what they do and why it matters, maybe now more than ever: this is the real challenge – and opportunity – that will put the wind in the sails of this report and drive meaningful improvement for Canadian research.