The review on fundamental research commissioned by Federal Minister of Science Kristy Duncan has generated significant buzz. It has also resulted in an unprecedented level of consensus among the usually-competitive scientific community, which eagerly awaits next steps.
Much of the buzz is about money – specifically, the need for more of it. Without doubt, a critical outcome of this review will be to “reverse the steady and pernicious decline of research funding in Canada,” as one recent Globe and Mail opinion piece noted. But largely missing from the commentary to date is the importance of the inter- and cross-provincial system into which that funding will be launched – a system whose effectiveness will ensure our scientific enterprise delivers for Canadians.
When it comes to health research, provincial funding agencies have unique insights into this system, and we urge our federal government – including Canada’s recently announced chief science advisor Dr. Mona Nemer – to draw on our expertise and experience. Provincial governments must be commended for funding these agencies, collectively the National Alliance of Provincial Health Research Organizations (NAPHRO), which together invest approximately $500M annually across the country. These synergistic investments, when combined with our local and regional capacity-building activities and our focus on provincial health and research priorities, are catalytic. Individually and as a collective, provincial funders are integral to the rejuvenation of Canada’s scientific enterprise in several ways.
First, our funding programs set scientists up for success in major research competitions. Through a range of offerings, from training and establishment grants to being the main source of matching funds on federal opportunities, we help build the skills and capacity of the Canadian health research community and increase their competitiveness nationally and internationally. Provincial funders ensure that their programs complement those of other provinces and federally to maximize efficiencies, reduce duplication and increase impact. Our programs also catalyze research in priority areas for our governments and health care systems, filling gaps in knowledge and responding to urgent issues. In our respective provinces, we partner with Canadian Institutes of Health Research, National Science and Engineering Council, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Genome Canada and others such as health charities, many of whom rely on our infrastructure and expertise to fund high-quality research of importance to their constituents.
Second, we have significant expertise in measuring the impact of health research. Based on a framework developed by Canadian Academy of Health Sciences, provincial agencies and our federal colleagues focus on impact in five areas: advancing knowledge, building capacity, informing decision-making, health outcomes, and broader social and economic outcomes. Provincial funders measure research impact for two reasons: public accountability – since research is funded by taxpayers – and learning. The importance of learning cannot be underestimated, given numerous studies that demonstrate that research evidence, however robust, does not easily get adopted in complex social systems. Understanding and responding to how impacts are measured and how research gets used has positioned NAPHRO members as international leaders.
Finally, in the competitive system that drives research success, provincial funders are trusted, neutral convenors of multiple stakeholder groups with diverse and sometimes conflicting needs and opinions. These stakeholders, influential and important players in Canada’s research enterprise, include researchers themselves and leaders within our universities, government, health care and non-profit agencies, and industry. Patients and the public are also important stakeholders, and increasingly interested in understanding and contributing to the research enterprise. Given the complexity of Canada's health research system and the broad sectors it seeks to serve, agencies like ours that bring people together to discuss difficult issues, make decisions and set priorities are essential.
Provincial funding and coordination of provincial and federal efforts are key to the success of any actions stemming from the Canada fundamental science review. Thanks to this report and other related initiatives, including the appointment of a chief science adviser, all Canadians stand to benefit from a reinvigorated scientific enterprise. And Canada’s provincial health research funders – integral to the rejuvenation of our country’s scientific enterprise – are ready to play their part in this important collective effort.
Since 2003 NAPHRO has convened Canada’s provincial health research funding organizations for dialogue, partnerships and collaboration.