The federal science review is an opportunity to strengthen Canadian research

Friday, October 28, 2016

Peter Severinson, Policy Analyst, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

This summer, the Canadian research community was tasked to address some of the sector’s most pressing challenges through the federal Fundamental Science Review, conducted by an independent panel struck by Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan. The Federation was an active participant in the review process, conducting extensive consultations with its members across the humanities and social sciences (HSS) community and delivering a comprehensive set of recommendations to the review committee in our official submission “Grasping the complexity of things: Building a federal research system to serve all Canadians.”

The submission finds that while the federally supported research system in Canada is struggling to address several significant challenges, Canada’s overall research architecture is sound, and we do not recommend major overhauls to the chief federal research agencies. However, certain key changes are needed to address both long-standing and emerging issues. The following are summaries of a few of the major recommendations included in the full submission. These recommendations will be basis of a discussion on fundamental science at the Federation’s 2016 Annual Conference on November 9 in Toronto, led by Christine Tausig Ford, Interim Executive Director, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, Stephen Toope, President, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, and
Vivek Goel,Vice-President, Research and Innovation, University of Toronto.  We hope to see you there!

Addressing the imbalance of funding for HSS research

Canada is increasingly developing into a predominantly service- and knowledge-oriented economy, with the service sector now accounting for 70 percent of GDP and three out of four jobs. Our ability to prosper will increasingly depend on widespread knowledge, innovation and skills related to the ways people behave and interact as well as how they understand and express themselves. It’s therefore increasingly urgent that we address the long-term imbalance of funding in the Canadian research system that sees just 15 percent of total federal funding for research grants going to the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the primary source of HSS research funding. At this level of funding, SSHRC was only able to provide funding to 25 percent of HSS researchers in 2015-16. This represents significant lost opportunities. To correct this funding imbalance, the Federation recommends that SSHRC’s share of total research funding be increased to 20 percent within 10 years.

Supporting multidisciplinary research through a new Multidisciplinary Challenges Fund

Some of our most pressing social challenges are too complex to address using any one perspective alone. Addressing such issues as climate change, reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, and socio-economic inequalities will require contributions from a broad range of scholarly disciplines, including from HSS. Unfortunately, we heard repeatedly throughout our consultations that Canada’s granting agencies continue to struggle to support research projects that either span or fall in between the agencies’ perceived mandates. The result is that potentially ground-breaking multidisciplinary approaches to understanding society’s complex challenges remain unexplored. The Federation therefore recommends the creation of a new Multidisciplinary Challenges Fund focused on supporting research on complex challenges using the knowledge and methods of multiple research disciplines.

Enhancing support for research infrastructure

The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) has grown to fulfill a vital role in supporting Canadian research infrastructure, and its current structure and strong governance are important reasons for its success. However, CFI suffers from some key limitations that inhibits its ability to support certain important forms of research. First, an absence of secure long-term funding limits the ability of the agency and its partners to conduct effective long-term planning. Secondly, an inflexible funding model that requires funding support from multiple sources limits access to funding for certain types of projects. This is particularly true for research projects that have broad national or international objectives — including HSS projects — and are not able to attract matching funding from provinces, whose research priorities are frequently more regionally focused. With greater certainty around its long-term funding and greater flexibility around matched funding requirements, CFI would be better placed to support a greater diversity of research projects with the potential for greater payoffs for Canada.

A way forward for Canadian research

While the challenges described above (and the many more described in the full submission) are significant, the Canadian research system as a whole has a sound foundation. The Federation’s submission emphasizes that while important work needs to be done to address several pressing issues, the research community is well equipped to take on these challenges. The Federation, and indeed the broader HSS community, is eager to continue to contribute to this important effort.

Keeping the conversation going

While the Panel is expected to report its recommendation in January, the agenda for improving Canada’s research system is a long term one. We hope to count on continued member participation in defining our sector’s engagement. Hence the special session at our Annual Conference  on November 9. Can’t make it? It will be livestreamed from 3:45 to 4:45 pm ET on the day of the event, and also posted to the Federation website shortly after the event. Find out how to watch the livestream here:


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