This article was originally published in Re$earch Money on June 14, 2017. Reprinted with permission by Re$earch Money.
By Debbie Lawes
President Donald Trump’s push for major cuts to research funding in the US are fueling even closer scientific ties between our two countries. Preliminary talks have begun between the US National Science Foundation and research funders in Canada to kickstart new research collaborations in quantum computing, the brain, biodiversity and the Arctic. Recent meetings held in both Ottawa and Washington are expected, as a first step, to result in a Dear Colleague letter from the NSF encouraging its researchers to identify opportunities for joint projects the rapidly evolving field of brain research.
Similar Dear Colleague letters have been developed between the NSF and Japan (big data); Brazil (cybersecurity), European Union (Graphene and 2D Layered Materials and Devices) and Canada (Arctic research).
America’s long history of scientific collaboration with Canada has been largely driven by individual investigators with established relationships, with few examples of top-down coordination at the political or granting agency levels. That began to change earlier this year with Trump’s proposed 2018 budget, which if approved by Congress would see deep cuts at the NSF, the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the US Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The president has proposed cutting the NSF’s budget by US$776 million, or 11% and the NIH’s budget by about a fifth, or US$5.8 billion.
US science agencies won a temporary reprieve April 30 when Congress ignored the president’s proposal and passed a US$1trillion spending deal that sees funding for science stay flat or even increase for the remainder of the 2017 budget year. However, there’s no guarantee science budgets will be maintained or increased in 2018.
As such, the NSF has begun drafting contingency plans in the event those cuts are implemented. Closer research ties with Canada are considered a top priority.
“With a budget like this we’re focusing even more on international partnerships because we need to have others bring money and resources to the table,” says Dr Rebecca Keiser, head of the NSF’s Office of International Science and Engineering.
“For instance, it makes sense to think about working with Canada in quantum science because Canada is investing a billion dollars in this area. With a reduced budget for us and knowing that quantum is extremely important it makes sense to form the connections so our researchers can take advantage of some of the Canadian facilities and hopefully the Canadian researchers can also benefit from the US scientists’ knowledge.” (Read the full R$ interview with Rebecca Keiser.)
Keiser, along with Prof Philip Nelson, chief executive of the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, were in Ottawa last week attending the annual meeting of the Global Research Council. They also spoke at a Universities Canada roundtable, entitled “Fostering international research collaboration during global disruption”. (Keiser’s presentation available here.) The May 31 event was organized in response to the recent “Naylor report” by the Advisory Panel on Federal Support for Fundamental Science which recommended that Canada’s tri-council agencies and the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) develop multi-agency strategies to support international research collaborations and modify existing funding programs to strengthen international partnerships (R$, April 19, 2017). A similar ecosystem review in the UK, the “Nurse report”, culminated in the UK Parliament passing legislation in April that will see a new umbrella organization, UK Research and Innovation, replacing the current seven research councils by April 2018.
The UK is also looking to bolster international research partnerships as a result of Brexit, which could result in 18 UK universities losing access to more than 50% of their research funding and thousands of researchers—currently 31,000 academics work in the UK who are non-British EU citizens. (Nelson’s presentation is available here, however he was unable to speak to the media under rules that prevent civil servants from making public comments just prior to a national election.)
Strategic coordination and funding needed
Dr Martha Crago, a member of the Naylor panel and moderator at the Universities Canada event, says the political disruptions occurring in the US and the UK are opening new opportunities for collaborating with Canada.
“At high levels there seems to be an appetite for increasing international collaborations,” says Crago, who takes over as VP research and innovation at McGill Univ in July. “I think we’re in an inflection point … in terms of how countries are thinking about their relation to other countries, but it’s very important that at the science level we stay collaborative.”
Crago is confident that researcher-to-researcher collaborations will weather the political storms, but stressed that an overarching structure and more funding is needed to strengthen and expand those bilateral partnerships. “It’s sub-optimal right now.”
Crago identified three new potential models or mechanisms for international research collaboration: sharing equipment costs; joint funding programs, including joint supervision of graduate students; and connecting Canada-UK-U.S. research centres.
“We have some examples of shared infrastructure and very expensive equipment but we haven’t really tackled this as a systematic change,” says Crago. “CFI has always made the case that with their funding formula, 40%, 40% and 20% from industry, the other 40% (traditionally contributed by provinces) could be met by other countries. We could do some very interesting things in terms of shared equipment, notably for Arctic research, but it requires some really good coordination between countries, researchers and funders.”
“The other thing I think people are looking at,” adds Crago, “is how do we become part of really major facilities like CERN, how do we get out of an associate status and into a major membership status.”
Keiser says recent discussions with the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and CFI haven’t resulted in any joint program or formal mechanism for coordination yet, but opportunities are being identified, such as quantum science and biodiversity.
“It also makes sense in the case of biodiversity research, when we want to help form an international community and we’re looking to collaborate with Canada in that area,” said Keiser. “By forming more of a top down collaboration in biodiversity research we can then use the different funding mechanisms to continue to bring the investigators together.”
Kaiser was in also in Ottawa in March where she met with senior officials with CFI to discuss infrastructure sharing. “We do coordinate with them already quite extensively in computer and information sciences and data infrastructure. We are talking to them about future collaboration, particularly related to the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). It’s a series of towers that we have around the US that collect ecological information and we would love to see if additional towers could be built in Canada.”
Further talks with the NSF were held in May when a Canadian science delegation, led by Science minister Kirsty Duncan, visited Washington.
While better coordination is needed, so is more money for joint research — a key recommendation in the Naylor report. Keiser said the NSF is willing to fund initial workshops to identify opportunities, “and then it’s going to be NSERC’s decision of course for the next step, which is whether we do a joint solicitation and whether there will be money.”
Crago said she was happy to see officials from different federal departments and funding councils at the Universities Canada roundtable, “because you got the feeling that this was something where we can take these next steps, and it would be good if there was some extra incentive of funding to move on this.”
In developing approaches to improve support for international research, Canada’s granting councils should consider:
- the need for dedicated funding for international research collaborations
- improved mechanisms to collect and report data on international research activities
- proactive and coordinated efforts to engage with international funding partners to create opportunities for Canadian researchers
Source: Recommendations from the report from the Advisory Panel on Federal Support for Fundamental Science