Canada’s Fundamental Science Review: Good News for Basic Research!

—Heidi Engelhardt, FAUW Board of Directors

A comprehensive look at research in Canada

The report “Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research”, released April 10, 2017, is the culmination of a thorough look at the federal research ‘ecosystem’ in Canada. There is a lot to like here for the entire research community. Although the report was submitted to the Minister of Science, it goes well beyond STEM disciplines. Indeed, research was defined to include both science and non-science (‘scholarly inquiry’).

For this undertaking, the more important distinction was between investigator-led research focused on knowledge generation, versus ‘priority-driven’ research. The latter was defined as research with a tightly defined area of focus, oriented primarily to partnerships (with government, industry, business), or promoting knowledge translation, innovation, and commercialization. The primary focus was on investigator-led research supported by the three granting councils plus CFI, referred to as the four funding agencies.

The advisory panel

A nine-member Advisory Panel appointed in June 2016 consisted of six academics from diverse disciplines across Canada, the Chief Scientist of Quebec, an expat Canadian now the Silverman Professor of Physics and Public Policy at UC Berkeley and Mike Lazaridis. There were meetings with 230 researchers at different career stages, 1,275 written submissions and roundtables in five cities (Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Ottawa, Halifax).

The 280 page report is surprisingly readable. Their mandate was captured by two broad questions:

  1. Are there any overall program gaps in Canada’s fundamental research funding ecosystem that need to be addressed? 
  2. Are there elements or programming features in other countries that could provide a useful example for the Government of Canada in addressing these gaps?

Challenges identified

It will surprise no one that one of their findings was that Canada’s research competitiveness had eroded in recent years, in association with flat-lined federal spending and redirection of funding to priority-driven and partnership oriented research. Coordination and collaboration among the four agencies was found to be suboptimal, and variability in practices was evident across these agencies beyond what could be explained by disciplinary differences.  
Lack of ‘life cycle’ support for both researchers and equipment/infrastructure was discussed at length. With respect to researcher support, the panel believed that the CRC program was no longer meeting its aim to “attract and retain the world’s most accomplished and promising minds”. A substantial (and rising) number of chairs are awarded to researchers already in-house or recruited from other Canadian universities; 10-15% of chairs are empty at any given time. At least part of this may be due to the fact that the funding levels of these positions have been unchanged for the past 17 years. Even more concern was expressed about the CERC (Canada Excellence Research Chairs) program, hence the recommendation that retooling the CRC program was the more sustainable strategy. 
With respect to trainees, levels of funding and numbers of awards for students and postdoctoral fellows have not kept pace, variously, with inflation, peer nations, or the number of applicants. The panel recommended that doctoral scholarship and PDF programs be reinvigorated, and harmonized across the tri-councils to achieve more consistency. They also recommended elimination of barriers to international portability.
The growth in programs requiring cost-sharing or matching support was flagged as problematic in some jurisdictions and inappropriate for many disciplines. It was recommended that when the intent is to support independent research, matching should be used sparingly and in a coordinated and targeted manner.

Highlights of recommendations

Overall, 35 specific recommendations were made. Highlights include:
  • creation of an independent National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation (NACRI) that would work closely with the soon-to-be appointed Chief Science Advisor
  • wide ranging improvements in oversight and governance of all four agencies
  • more money! … significant reinvestment on a multi-year basis spread across …
    • investigator-led grants (highest priority)
    • enhanced personnel support for researchers and trainees at different career stages
    • targeted spending on infrastructure-related operating costs for small equipment and Big Science facilities
    • improved coverage of the institutional costs of research
Inevitably, this boils down to the reality of dollars. Carrying out these recommendations was estimated to increase annual spending across the four agencies from approximately $3.5 billion to $4.8 billion, requiring redirection of an additional 0.4% of the Government of Canada’s annual budget. While most of this funding would go to the granting councils’ core programs, a portion would be channelled to investigator-led projects involving international collaborations, multidisciplinary work, high-risk, high-reward (‘HR2’) ventures and projects requiring rapid response.

Other valuable information

In addition to its potential impact on national science policy, this document is a rich source of information on many topics, including:  
  • trends in research funding among select G7 nations, key east Asian countries and small peer nations (Chapter 3)
  • a comparison of funding levels by the three granting agencies (an eye opener for some; Chapters 4, 5, 7)
  • a discussion of targets for success rates in grant competitions (20% minimum suggested; Chapter 5)
  • of particular relevance to Waterloo – Canada’s World Share in Emerging Research Areas, many of which are considered to be strengths of our institution (nanotech, bioinformatics, computer science, quantum computing, robotics and mechatronics, et al.; Appendix 1) 

Overall, this undertaking and its report – an impressive output in less than a year – is good news for Canadian research. It is unlikely that there will ever be enough funding to support all researchers at all institutions in a style to which they would like to become accustomed. And “reasonable people will disagree unreasonably about where the funds flow”. However, this report outlines many steps, large and small, in the right direction. The question now is whether, and when these recommendations will be implemented.

I encourage you to browse the report itself, and the analysis posted by CAUT.

Open Access

Christine Jewell, University of Waterloo Library

Do you follow developments in the Open Access (OA) movement? If so, you’ll have heard the exciting news on the Canadian front.  This past October, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) together launched a consultation on a harmonized open access policy.

The agencies are aiming for a policy that is in tune with global trends toward open access of scholarly literature, specifically, peer-reviewed journal publications arising from publicly funded research. The consultation document, entitled the Draft Tri-Agency Open Access Policy, is modeled after the CIHR Open Access Policy that has been in place since 2008.  The CIHR policy states that peer-reviewed journal articles must be freely accessible within 12 months of publication. The CIHR policy remains in effect throughout the consultation process. The proposed policy would apply to CIHR grants as well as SSHRC and NSERC grants awarded after September 1, 2014. More information and answers to frequently asked questions are posted on the NSERC website.

The consultation stage of the proposal will end on December 13th.  NSERCC and SSHRC are calling for individual as well as collective responses to be sent to openaccess@nserc-crsng.gc.ca.

Context

The benefits of open access to scholarly research have been promised for more than a decade, but we are still waiting for the movement’s full potential to be realized.  Academic publishers have long orchestrated dissemination of the literature, and commercial presses continue to maintain a close grip. Yet the historical path traversed by Open Access policy has had some interesting twists and turns that suggest that the structure so familiar to us today is not inherent in a scholarly communication process. Jean-Claude Guédon’s work describes developments that give us a context for future directions.

Initially presented to a library audience in 2001, Guédon’s seminal piece, “In Oldenburg’s Long Shadow”, is an intriguing look at the development of scholarly communication, from its emergence in the seventeenth century to the profound changes we are on the verge of today.  The broad perspective gives us reason to consider alternatives to the current problematic structure.

The Open Access movement is driven by the digital revolution and trends in scholarly publishing such as the soaring cost of journal subscriptions. The Internet supports instantaneous communication and facilitates the sharing of ideas. Ubiquitous dissemination of a polished expression of an idea is technically possible. But this is where traditional channels and innovation collide. The scholarly journal typically claims the right to disseminate in exchange for a stamp of authenticity. Publication in a reputable academic journal is a mark of genuine contribution to the literature.

Scholarly journals coordinate the peer-review process.  As a result of the peer-review process, a researcher, student or scholar can rely, to an extent at any rate, on the merit of work presented by a scholarly publisher. This is a vital and pivotal role in the scholarly communication process.

“…scholars create, discuss and review the literature, and yet are limited in their ability to carry out what might be considered their primary purpose: sharing their research results.”

However, in this context, a number of concerns occur. Consider two huge benefits of the internet – the unprecedented breadth of the dissemination of information, and the speed of the dissemination. In the traditional structure of scholarly communication, these benefits are not optimally realized. The scholarly community – indeed humanity – has an increasing need for swift communication of knowledge. The Internet can help enable this. Reform is imperative in a communication structure that impedes the realization of such benefits.

A second concern is the conflict between the motives of scholars and those of commercial publishers. Driven by the profit incentive, commercial publishers need not hold optimal dissemination as a high priority. Without monetary compensation, scholars create, discuss and review the literature, and yet are limited in their ability to carry out what might be considered their primary purpose: sharing their research results.

Developments

Recent years have seen reassuring developments. I’ll mention three here.

  1. Publishers are growing increasingly accommodating. Of the 1350 publishers in the RoMEO database, 71% have policies that permit the author to archive their pre-prints, post-prints, or both (coded yellow – preprints only; blue – post-prints only; green — pre-prints and post-prints).When an author archives a pre-print or post-print article to a subject or institutional repository, it is called Green OA.  With Green OA, the peer-review process happens elsewhere and the author takes the action to make the deposit. The Tri-Agencies recognize deposit in a repository as satisfying the free accessibility requirement.
  2. Gold OA is the type that happens via journals, either open access journals or journals that offer an open access option. More publishers are offering an open access option to their authors, with a fee paid by the author.  The Tri-Agencies recognize the fee as eligible for grant funding.
  3. Researchers have started taking advantage of leverage available to them. An author is not obliged to sign away all rights to his/her work. Simply scratching out parts of an agreement deemed unnecessarily restrictive is an option, as is insertion of desired rights.  Key rights include such things as the right to share a published article with colleagues (even colleagues not affiliated with an institution that subscribes to the journal); the right to post a version of an article on a personal web site or a subject or institutional repository; and the right to reuse portions in a subsequent work.To assist the author with customizing a publisher’s agreement, SPARC provides an author’s addendum that can be completed and submitted along with the publisher’s agreement.  The Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL) provides a SPARC Canadian Author Addendum.

It may be pertinent here to make note of yet another distinction within OA. While open access is always free access in the sense of free of price barriers, the Budapest, Bethesda and Berlin statements call for the removal of permission (i.e., copyright and licensing restriction) barriers as well. To distinguish these types of open access, Peter Suber borrowed from open source software terminology to coin “libre” and “gratis” for the scholarly communication context. In practice, open access articles are typically only gratis, or free of charge to the reader. Libre OA, less common, goes a step further and removes at least some permission barriers (thus permitting e.g. unrestricted reproduction, distribution, public display, and creation and distribution of derivative works). Funding agencies typically require only gratis OA.

Options for UW Faculty

If not already in the habit of making articles freely accessible, researchers funded by one of the Tri-Agencies might begin to consider their options.

Gold OA is one avenue. An author might opt to publish with an open access journal. The DOAJ is a comprehensive directory of open access journals. Or an author might pay the open access fee to the publisher when the option is available.

Green OA is another avenue. After consulting the RoMEO database, an author might choose to submit to a journal that is listed there as allowing archiving the post-print to a repository.

Green OA can also be accomplished by signing a publisher’s agreement after attaching an addendum that establishes the rights to archive to a repository.

UWSpace is Waterloo’s institutional repository. At present, UWSpace contains only ETDs (electronic theses and dissertations). An option available since 1998, electronic submission of theses and open access to them has been the default at Waterloo since 2006.

Having completed an upgrade in the repository software application, the Library is about to embark on an expansion of UWSpace to contain additional document types, including faculty research. Posting to UWSpace would meet the Tri-agencies’ proposed requirements.  So stay tuned! We’ll have updates on the UWSpace development in the near future.