The Best Investment Canada Can Make
To be competitive in the economy of tomorrow, governments should invest more in investigator-led research today
By Meric Gertler
April 10, 2017, could prove to be a turning point in the history of Canadian research. On that day Canada’s Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan, released the final report of the expert panel on support for fundamental science, Investing in Canada’s Future: Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research. The panel was led by Dr. David Naylor, who served as president of U of T until 2013. (I’m pleased to note that the panel included another former president of this institution, Robert Birgeneau; and Kirsty Duncan is herself an alumna and former faculty member.)
The Naylor Report warns that Canada’s research competitiveness has declined in recent years. Funding for investigator-led research through the research granting councils has eroded, and federal support as a whole has shifted dramatically toward government-mandated priorities and away from independent research initiated by scientists and scholars. At the same time, a lack of co-ordination among the granting agencies has limited their effectiveness.
To address these problems, the Naylor Report provides a comprehensive set of evidence-based recommendations, including measures to augment the effectiveness, accountability and efficiency of the federal research ecosystem. It also argues for a significant reinvestment in funding. On this point, the panel notes that such funding would be “among the highest-yield investments in Canada’s future that any government could make,” citing “global competition, the current conditions in the ecosystem, the role of research in underpinning innovation and educating innovators, and the need for research to inform evidence-based policy-making.”
As I write this, it remains unclear whether the federal government will fully implement the panel’s recommendations. Minister Duncan’s commitment to science is sincere and admirable, and the Trudeau government acknowledged the concerns of the Canadian research community through its enhancements to research council funding in the 2016 federal budget. Still, we need to encourage Ottawa to embrace the Naylor Report in its entirety. The remarkable degree of consensus across Canada’s scholarly community in support of its recommendations confirms the generational opportunity it represents to reshape public policy in an area of vital importance to our country’s future.
Recent global headlines celebrating Canada’s incredible depth of talent in artificial intelligence (AI) provide a timely indication of what’s at stake. One of the single largest factors in the country’s global leadership in AI is the path-breaking work of U of T’s Geoffrey Hinton, a University Professor emeritus in computer science, whose decades-long research program on neural networks and machine learning only recently achieved several historic breakthroughs.
These discoveries are now driving transformational changes in voice and image recognition, language translation, and a seemingly limitless number of other technologies, while attracting massive investments and creating new high-quality jobs (notably, here in Toronto and other Canadian centres of AI research and innovation). They are also driving Toronto’s emergence as a global hub in a field of study that’s revolutionizing industries from medicine to law, financial services, transportation and information technologies. The recent establishment of the Vector Institute will further propel this promising development.
It’s crucial to note that Professor Hinton and his students were supported over many years by funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research – long before the commercial potential of machine learning was known. This incredible success story reminds us of how public funding for pioneering, curiosity-driven, investigator-initiated research has led to so many of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of science and technology, and in turn improved the lives of countless people around the world.
The Naylor Report argues persuasively that Canada needs to continue to support such research, and it charts a clear course of action to that end. U of T and scholars across the country are calling on the federal government to embrace and fully implement the report’s recommendations. I encourage all of our alumni and friends to join us in this call to action, on a matter that’s so crucial to Canada’s long-term prosperity.