The haphazard world of scientific research funding

Human systems, from medicine and technology to industrial agriculture, are built upon the tools and findings brought forward by scientific achievement. Yet, to practice science in the 21st century, researchers depend upon another cornerstone of modern civilization: Money. 

The amount of funds required to conduct scientific research is almost incomprehensible. Last year, McGill received over $500 million to fund research. In the past, grant money has allowed McGill scientists to uncover the molecule behind synaptic plasticity, suggest innovative climate change solutions, and peer into life on other planets.

Although the benefits of research endowments are obvious, the source of McGill labs’ research money is a more complicated story—one that includes various stakeholders across the scientific community. 

In Canada, the vast majority of grants for scientific research come from the federal government. When scholars apply for federal funding, they submit a proposal to one of three governing bodies: The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), or the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). These bodies indirectly receive funding from the government, according to Katie Gibbs, executive director of Evidence for Democracy, a non-profit organization that advocates for evidence-based policymaking in Canadian politics.

“The federal government decides how much money to give those councils and has varying degrees of determination over how those funds are distributed,” Gibbs said in an interview with The McGill Tribune.

These three funding agencies, together referred to as the ‘Tri-Councils,’ are led by scientists who read and choose which applications to fund from university faculty and graduate-level researchers.

The competitive nature of this application system creates tension in academic environments. Among other aspects, a professor’s research output can be a deciding factor in a university’s decision of whether to grant them tenure. This reality puts additional pressure on academics to secure funding and churn out more papers; the alternative entails jeopardizing career growth. 

In a country where the government holds a tight grasp on the purse strings of science, researchers find themselves strapped to propose immediately useful projects. Studies with instant benefits to the public interest are more likely to receive funding and have been appearing with increasing frequency in the application process. These projects typically fall within the fields of medical science or engineering—disciplines that are known for producing direct and tangible results. 

Another issue associated with the current funding landscape is the inconsistency of available money from year to year. Left to the whims of changing federal governments, each prime minister can dictate the federal budget’s research allocations during their time in office. The Harper government increased Canadian expenditures to science and technology from 20052009 but decreased the same funds by 10 per cent leading up to 2015. 

“Certainly, over the years of the Harper government, funding for the Tri-Councils was pretty stagnant,” Gibbs said. “Even when there was new money made available, it was often criticized that a lot of the new programs put in place required things like an industry partnership.”

At McGill, industry-sponsored research represented the fourth-largest funding source in 2018. Approximately eight per cent of McGill’s research budget, which amounts to just over $44 million, was acquired through industry partnerships from businesses and corporations. 

Industry funds are not typically dispersed evenly between disciplines. Similar to successful governmental grants, research subjects that attract interest from corporations come from scientific fields with direct applications. This practice can ostracize scientists who require funds to complete what is known as basic science in the fields of chemistry, physics, and biology. These subjects provide foundational knowledge for researchers in the applied sciences to create the drugs, machines, and technology of the future. 

Rafael Reif, the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) wrote to the Wall Street Journal in 2016 about the issue of the asymmetric support that industries provide to certain disciplines. 

“The qualities [that] make industry good at applied research, primarily their appetite for immediate commercialization, a laser focus on consumer demand, an obligation to maximize short-term returns, and a proprietary attitude about information—make industry a bad fit for supporting basic scientific research,” Reif wrote.

Gibbs is unsure that the government has lived up to its campaign promise to provide scientists with additional support that they requested five years ago.  

“Overall, the Trudeau government has done a pretty good job,” Gibbs said. “They didn’t really make any big promises around funding in the [2015] election. They expressed, more broadly, vague commitments around ‘restoring science to its rightful place,’ so it is kind of hard to measure if they have followed through or not.”

In 2017, the federal government commissioned a report on the state of scientific progress in Canada and recommended fairly large investments into fundamental research. Yet, federal government spending on science and technology is expected to decrease by 2.6 per cent from $12 billion to $11.7 billion in 2019. In fact, federally funded research in Canadian universities and institutes remains among the lowest per capita of any high-income economy, sinking to less than 25 per cent in 2017. Thus, Canadian institutions are left to supplement 50 per cent of these costs today, to the detriment of both research and education.

The repercussion of government funding decisions directly impacts researchers at all levels of academia. Decisions to cut the amount of funds available to McGill professors in the basic sciences has consequences for their students as well. 

Brendon McGuinness, a second-year PhD candidate in the Department of Biology, understands this experience first-hand. He expressed frustration with the NSERC application process specifically. 

“It is a lot of money,” McGuinness said. “[But] the applications are not fun to do because it really is quite intimidating. It’s very competitive and a lot of work for an award you are statistically not going to get.”

Graduate students are generally encouraged by their supervising professors to seek additional sources of funding aside from government grants that have become increasingly difficult for students to depend on. In an interview with the Tribune, Jessica Rose, Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM) Chair of Teaching Assistant (TA) Bargaining, explained that supervisors are hesitant to offer students research contracts because they fear that the university will not be able to reliably supplement the student’s income. Graduate students are therefore left to accept graduate offers that are not adequately supported by federal funds and must take on the additional responsibilities as TAs or search for other sources of income.  

“In our conversations with the Faculty of Science, we found that most of the funding for doctoral students comes from their supervisors, but the supervisors were very reluctant to guarantee students a minimum [salary], because they were concerned that they could lose their grants,” Rose said. 

McGuinness also explained that students are not always motivated to apply for funding, since they rely on money from many other sources.  

“In my experience, you are not incentivized financially when applying for the [NSERC] awards because so much of the money that we make is coming from other sources,” McGuinness said. “Yes, it looks good on a CV and is very good for getting postdoc positions, but in terms of the money you are receiving, it most likely is coming from somewhere else. Regardless of the pressure, we are encouraged by our supervisors to apply for grants.”

Scientific progress is only as successful as the people involved. As of yet, the Canadian government has still not found a mutually amicable way to relieve the financial burden placed on individual professors, their students, and the institutions that support them. Ultimately, basic sciences should not be overlooked, and instead must receive funding that reflects the immense contribution of scientists to more applied fields.

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