Peter Halpin: Investing In Atlantic Canada’s Future

Atlantic Canada’s university leaders strongly support and endorse the recently released report of the Advisory Panel on Federal Support for Fundamental Science, Investing in Canada’s Future: Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research (the report). It is comprehensive in scope and many of its recommendations reflect the point of view the Association of Atlantic Universities (AAU) presented to the advisory panel during its national consultations. Our universities applaud the panel’s primary recommendation that annual federal spending across its four main research funding agencies be increased from approximately $3.5 billion to $4.8 billion (and maintain a rebalancing of federal research funding towards investigator-driven research projects across the full diversity of disciplines and areas). There is a strong emphasis in the report on supporting early career researchers, as well as recognition for early-to-mid-career researchers who frequently face many obstacles in the current funding system. The importance of this issue is well understood by Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science (a former associate professor of health studies). In her recent address to presidents at Universities Canada’s annual spring meeting, she emphasized the “great potential of early career researchers” but the “critical need to take action” on their behalf. The panel’s recommendation to better coordinate efforts, processes, and programming across the major federal funding agencies aligns with our universities commitment to inter-institutional R&D collaboration, locally, nationally, and internationally to fully leverage the diversity and vitality of the research ecosystem in our region. Our commitment to collaboration and coordination is best demonstrated by Springboard Atlantic, a university-led research commercialization network. The AAU also agrees with the report’s emphasis on the importance of diversity and greater equity in the federal funding of research with an appropriate focus on the important issues of gender and career stage diversity and equity in research funding, an opportunity referred to by Minister Duncan as “inclusive excellence.” It also raised the need for much greater attention to Indigenous research. Atlantic Canada’s universities, many located in rural communities with longstanding relationships to Indigenous and First Nations peoples, are particularly well positioned to uphold the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations on research. A core purpose is to improve the knowledge base of Atlantic Aboriginal economic development in order to improve the lives of Aboriginal peoples in the region. The research approaches community economic development from a broad, holistic perspective based on Aboriginal culture, languages, and direction from elders. The report could have better articulated that research excellence is found in universities of all sizes across Canada – an important principle for the AAU. Our universities strongly support the idea that fundamental scientific research in Canada must be a level playing field across the country for awarding funding to universities regardless of their size. Atlantic Canada’s universities are differentiated in their respective roles, capacities, and needs in advancing research, a core aspect of every AAU member university’s mission. Our universities are also pleased with the panel’s conclusion that “the recent erosion of Canada’s research competitiveness . . . has been exacerbated by a policy shift in favour of new programs that focus resources on a limited number of individuals and institutions.” We agree with the panel’s suggestion that these types of programs should be reviewed to ensure value for money. The report calls for a much stronger return to smaller, curiosity-driven research that does not require large matching fund commitments or extensive partnerships, which has historically disadvantaged our region. Our universities believe that if the government can take the steps to implement these recommendations, the R&D enterprise at all Atlantic Canada’s Universities and the research ecosystem in our region will benefit. It is essential that our universities secure regional, national, and international industrial and government agency support for research that leads to commercialization opportunities, innovation, economic growth, and social development across the region. Atlantic Canada’s universities look forward to working with the Government of Canada as it acts upon recommendations from the report. – Peter Halpin is Executive Director, Association of Atlantic Universities (AAU).