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.

12 Thoughts About The Budget

Well, the federal budget dropped this week. Pundits seem to be in agreement that the overall budget is long on style and short on substance – at least so far as dollars are concerned (Coyne, Wells, Hébert). To some degree this is true on the innovation and research policy front, though there’s a lot to unpack. 

On the innovation and skills side, there’s a lot to like in the budget – there are a lot of details yet to come, but the potential is encouraging. In fact, I’m a little concerned that this plan may be too ambitious.

Too much ambition is definitely not a problem on the research side. This budget is very thin on research. Actually, it goes beyond thin into strange. We’ll need to spend some time figuring things out.

For a much more complete overview of the implications for the sector, I highly recommend the analysis from Alex Usher and his associates at HESA (.pdf here). This post is going to be more of a personal set of ideas and highlights. Here are 12 thoughts about the budget:

  1. Innovation and Skills Plan. Instead of an “Innovation Agenda”, we are presented with the “Innovation and Skills Plan”. The budget does a pretty good job of laying out what this plan looks like, how the pieces are supposed to fit together, and it even manages to plausibly link it to middle class success. (Note for those of you following along at home: I found Table 1.1 on p. 46 really helped me understand how all the pieces are supposed to fit together.)

  3. Skills. Overall, I think the government did some very good work here. Full marks for working with the province through Labour Market Transfer Agreements – new money and collaborative reform rather than a unilateral federal program is tougher but the right thing to do. Changes to student financing seem like a positive step (though HESA knows much more about this than I).

  5. FutureSkills Lab. As recommended by the Minister’s growth council, the government is allocating $225M over four years to establish a new organization to “support skills development and measurement in Canada”. I’m still not clear on how this isn’t already ESDC’s role, but sometimes a new organization can bring fresh thinking to an issue. This organization has a mandate to identify skills needed, explore innovative ways to develop them, and perform analysis and evaluation. Thankfully, the program doesn’t kick in until next fiscal year, so there is time to work out the details. It would be GREAT if we could get this right (fingers crossed).

  7. Brief aside on program development.  We could do much better on program development in this country, and maybe (hopefully) #futureskillslab will get this right. At Mitacs we embraced a form of ‘rapid iterative prototyping’ for program development. We developed ideas, designed small-scale pilots, and then tested them. Many of them fail (don’t tell anyone from Mitacs I told you this). Others had success but didn’t have a clear path to growth or sustainability. A few made it to fully-fledged programs and have demonstrated enormous success (more on that in a minute).


    We need program development sandboxes to try out policy ideas. But – and THIS IS THE IMPORTANT PART – we also need mechanisms to evaluate their impact and then scale them up or shut them down. It would be great if this fail-fast/rapid iterative prototyping approach to program design could be embedded in the new initiatives announced in this week’s budget.


  9. Mitacs. I’m completely biased, but I’m going to simply come out and say it: I’m thrilled for the investment in Mitacs – $221M over five years. Having spent so many years talking to students and companies who used the programs, I deeply believe graduate research internships confer enormous benefits to students and encourage a culture of research in many small and medium sized Canadian companies. The government, universities, and community should take pride in having supported the growth of such a successful program – a global pioneer in the field (/end_proud_rant).

  11. Youth. I’m also encouraged by measures to increase youth engagement with STEM – particularly through the $10.8M in NSERC’s PromoScience Program. This is an easy investment to overlook, but building STEM literacy and interest in K-12 education makes a lot more sense to me than simply teaching kids to code (wait, what? Right – there’s also $50M in the budget to teach kids to code). All kids, regardless of what careers they pursue or what disciplines they study, will benefit from the critical thinking and fact-based inquiry provided by good STEM experiences in elementary and secondary schools. (Disclosure: I’m a volunteer board member with the great organization Let’s Talk Science which has received PromoScience funding).

  13. Innovation. Right, generally I think this is pretty good. As I referenced in my last post, innovation tends to get confused with industrial strategy – a point made explicit here when the Budget outlines the sectors the government is backing through “big bets”: advanced manufacturing, agri-food, clean technology, digital industries, health/bio-sciences and clean resources. But it also gets into some real innovation policy around program review, venture capital, procurement and more. New programs don’t involve significant new funding (apart from last year’s funding for clusters, now super-sized). But maybe this is a good thing if it means programs have a chance to develop, iterate, evaluate and terminate/scale (see #4, above)

  15. New Innovation Programs. Here’s where I worry about ambition, but am excited about possibility. After years of looking longingly at other countries’ successful innovation programs, we’re finally going to get a couple of our own. Innovative Solutions Canada is going to get $50M to leverage procurement for innovation. More importantly, it will be modeled after the US Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. This would be great – SBIR is often cited as a major driver of American innovation and ingenuity. I could do 12 thoughts on SBIR (and maybe I will, he threatened), but it will be hard to get right given our lack of scale and purchasing power (we simply don’t have anything like US Departments of Energy, Defense or NASA).


    The same will be true for the Impact Canada Fund – which will “focus and accelerate” efforts to solve big challenges. This kind of ‘mission-driven’ research has long been hailed as an innovation-engine based on longing glaces at DARPA and NASA. The fund will get $75M for two years of effort on clean technology (better hurry up!) and $300M over 11 years (whoa, slow down!) for work on Smart Cities. There is a ton of potential in this kind of program, but the devil is SO SO SO in the details of implementation. The program will need to strike the right balance between focus and micro-management – here, the DARPA model should be instructive.


  17. Superclusters. Not a lot to say here. $950M of already-committed money, details are coming later in spring, only $50M allocated to be spent this year, followed by $250M annually and $150M in the last year of the initiative (2021-22). Not a lot of mystery in the identities of the superclusters: the six areas of focus listed in #7 plus infrastructure and transportation are listed as examples of the sort of areas. This is tricky stuff.  Given the amount of money involved, there will be no shortage of advice from potential recipients.

  19. Innovation Canada and Program Review. This could be a big deal. A new platform led by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, Innovation Canada will potentially have an enormous mandate. It will lead the creation of economic growth strategies, conduct a review of all business innovation programs across all government departments (including SRED), and will become a “one-stop shop for Canada’s innovators”. I feel like I’ve heard this before. Unlike the NRC’s Concierge, however, if this were done properly it could actually work. Hopefully the thinking will be guided by the still-relevant Jenkins report on federal support to R&D (actually, that report seems to have its fingerprints all over this budget). One of the key recommendations of that report was the creation of an Industrial Research and Innovation Council that would become the common service platform for all business innovation support programs. It was a good idea then and it’s a good idea now. As with so much here – the devil will be in the details. Will review lead to the consolidation of innovation programs under the administration Innovation Canada? Or will it develop as a true platform that simply serves to connect them with users through a common access point. So much potential here.

  21. National Research Council. Good news: there is a plan to make a plan. Yes, the Government will undertake a review of the NRC in 2017. Not much to go on here, though I think it’s notable that the government wants to “assess how the Council can best support the Innovation and Skills Plan” as well as support “mission-driven, breakthrough research in collaboration with the new Impact Canada Fund”. I know that all this might simply be budget branding and positioning, but it seems to me that the NRC and Canadians would be best served if it were able to first establish its core research mandate rather than (once again) reorient towards the new innovation plan of the government of the day.  I truly, deeply want the NRC to find its feet and reestablish itself as a preeminent institution for Canadian research.

  23. Whither Research? Honestly, what is going on here? Reading through the budget yesterday, I was thinking there were some good ideas, interesting approaches, the usual sprinkling of direct research funding to a few specific organizations, and then… where are the granting councils? CFI? Genome Canada? Did I miss them? Do they have their own section? It slowly dawned on me – and then it dawned on Twitter – they’re not there. Anywhere. Any of them – no NSERC, CIHR, SSHRC. No CFI. No Genome Canada. Nowhere.


    I can’t overstate how profoundly weird this is. I know there was some socializing about reduced expectations for research dollars in the last few months. And yes, the granting councils got a bit of an extra bump last year. But nothing? In a budget all about “Innovation and Skills”?Look – one might argue that the Government is waiting for the results of the Naylor panel before committing funding. One might argue that there simply isn’t any money and so there’s no funding to be had. One might even argue that the councils already have precisely the right level of funding and don’t deserve any more. None of these things are true – but still the government could take these strategies, but it doesn’t. The budget simply ignores them.


    Boy oh boy, this is not going to go over well. For nine years the research community largely embraced a narrative that small, below-inflation increases in funding were ideologically driven by science-hating Conservatives. Therefore, once the Conservatives were removed, research would be back in business and falling success rates, shrinking grants and financial pressure would be alleviated. Dare I say, the community was encouraged in this impression by the Liberal platform – by the fact that two ministers have the word “Science” in their title. Last year’s modest increases were pitched as a “down payment”. And here, the promise of an “innovation budget”. And yet. This will feel like a betrayal.


    I have long maintained that we should not conflate research and innovation – that they are not the same, that there isn’t a direct correlation between them. But an innovative economy is still built on a strong foundation of research and development. And funding for basic science in Canada has been stagnant for a decade. At this moment, when Canada is uniquely attractive to highly qualified researchers from around the world, the best we can do is rebrand a recruiting tool like Canada Excellence Research Chairs but without the granting council increases that will support their research? I don’t get it.


    There are some targeted investments. The AI consortium out of Toronto, Waterloo, Montreal and Edmonton was awarded $125M (which, oddly, is the only item in the science and innovation spend that is allocated to this fiscal year, 2016-17 – better hurry). There are modest but important bits of funding for Stem Cell Network ($6M for one year), Canadian Space Agency ($80M over five years), Institute for Quantum Computing ($10M over two years), Community and College Social Innnovation Fund ($10M over two years) and CIFAR ($35M over five years). With all due respect to these institutions, apart from the AI windfall, this is pretty thin gruel for Canadian research.


    Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I’m wrong about the Naylor report and it will soon be released instead of buried when the sun comes out. Maybe it will call for transformative funding and the government will be eager to comply. Maybe.


    But in the meantime, things look pretty grim.



12 Thoughts on Innovation

So, here we are. A week to go before the federal budget. It’s late March, but it’s snowing and -15C in Ottawa so the budget doesn’t feel as late as it might otherwise.

12 thoughts on innovation:

  1. There’s a Canadian tendency to complain about innovation policy, particularly around how little our politicians understand what it really means. Let’s stop it.

First, it’s just generally tiresome to be so urbane and pedantic — particularly about something as arcane as innovation policy. Second, we need to realize that we’re talking about two very different and distinct things when we talk about “innovation policy”. On the one hand, there’s actual innovation policy as economists and policy wonks understand it. Policy meant to encourage innovation, which increases productivity and competitiveness, and results in lower prices, higher wages and a higher standard of living. This is a very big deal and is something we need to figure out.

On the other hand, “innovation policy” is also being used as politically-acceptable shorthand for “high-tech industrial policy”. This is the sort of innovation policy that leads to suggestions about coding skills, STEM investments, and clusters in AI, quantum computing and so on. The first use of the term is about making our existing economy more productive. The second term is about building a different sort of economy. There’s overlap, but they’re fundamentally different concepts.

  1. It seems there is a certain amount of disagreement within the federal government between those who want the “Innovation Agenda” to be about the former and those who want the “Innovation Agenda” to be about the latter. And the result is the current logjam/mashup.
  1. “Industrial Policy” has a seriously negative reputation in Canada, conjuring memories of state intervention in the economy of the 60s and 70s. Canada has been proudly free-market in its industrial support for a couple generations now, though there are calls for this to change. The UK is dipping its toes back into industrial policy, though with the gong-show that is post-Brexit UK economic policy, who knows what will happen there.
  1. Speaking of the UK, they released their spring budget last week. If a Canadian government were interested in promoting skills, talent, and technology they could perhaps have a look. There is £270 million in targeted R&D investments in things like electric vehicle batteries, AI and robots, and drug manufacturing (ahem, industrial policy). Impressively, there is £160 million in fellowships for early- and mid-career researchers – in “areas aligned to the Industrial Strategy”. The UK’s Campaign for Science and Engineering is cautiously impressed.
  1. The UK budget also commits £90 million over four years to support an additional 1,000 PhD spaces. 400 of these will be committed to “strengthen collaboration between business and academia through industrial partnerships”. Sounds awfully familiar.
  1. The UK budget also targets 85% of the new PhD funding to STEM disciplines. Look, I have a PhD in Biochemistry and I think science is awesome. But I’m starting to worry that our laser-like focus on STEM is overshooting the mark and missing the point. There are two issues: first, students in Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities aren’t cloistered away with quills and quires. They’re learning all sorts of digital and technical skills that are perfectly suited for today’s workforce. Second, given that we’re all worried about automation, aren’t the really technical jobs the ones most likely to be automated? To prepare for a world of robot labour, shouldn’t we be focusing on the human skills? Like those that are taught in the arts, social sciences, and humanities?
  1. Full marks to my colleague and friend Alex Usher for his unrelenting calls for the Naylor Report to be tabled. There’s certainly frustration around Ottawa that this hasn’t yet been released, but also a resignation that this is how politics works. We’ll get to see it after the budget, at which point it will be too late to ask for new spending this year.
  1. In fact, the Naylor report is just one part of an important upcoming few months where this government is going to have to establish its mark on research and innovation strategy. In addition to the Science Review panel, we are on the cusp of important decisions on a Chief Science Advisor, new leadership at CIHR and CFI, the budget, and the Innovation Agenda.  Yes, it’s been a tumultuous year for politics, especially for a realtively new government still finding its feet. But now it’s time to demonstrate some leadership and direction for Canada’s research enterprise.
  1. Speaking of the Innovation Agenda, the results of the consultations by esteemed Canadian innovation leaders were quietly released on Dec 22. It seems most of us missed it. The big take home message is that the government’s agenda should focus on People, Technology and Companies. Fair enough, it not exactly earth-shattering. But then it devolves into a confusion around clusters, digital and clean technology and workforce diversity. If this is the agenda, perhaps it’s best left on the shelf.
  1. Not that there are any shortage of smart people advising on how to do innovation, including the recent announcement of Ivey prof Mike Moffatt as Chief Innovation Fellow at ISED. Moffatt co-authored some big recommendations in a recent 2020 report on innovation. (aside: Moffatt had me at the creation of a Parliamentary Coherence Officer. Not sure it’s the right mechanism, but it’s definitely the right idea. We could do more for innovation in Canada by removing barriers than by investing more dollars.). Moffatt joins some real innovation heavyweights on Dominic Barton’s Growth Council who are also advising. No shortage of advice in Ottawa these days.
  1. Speaking of the Growth Council, their second set of recommendations are worth revisiting ahead of next week’s budget. I actually quite enjoyed the paper on innovation. Though I’m still not entirely sure what “innovation marketplaces” look like in practice, the group has it right that our big issue isn’t the creation of innovation, it’s adoption. There’s little innovation advantage in developing quantum computers if 85% of Canadian executives admit they don’t take full advantage of existing technology.
  1. More confusing is the Growth Council’s skills recommendations: the creation of a FutureSkills Lab. Goofy name aside, what’s this about? Fund pilot initiatives, identify and fill gaps for labour information and inform government policy. Isn’t that already the mandate for Employment and Social Development Canada. I’m confused.

That’s it folks. We’ll see if I can come up with another 12 thoughts on innovation next week. I’m sure I’ll have plenty of thoughts after the budget…


March 14, 2017